“What did you make this year?”
Rightly or wrongly, it’s a question that’s intrinsically tied to our sense of worth. Whether it’s 50 grand a year or double that, the money in the bank has become a defining statement of character. It speaks of an assiduous grind replete with literal and figurative sweat and tears – blood as well, depending on the occupation. It could demonstrate skill and intelligence on top of discipline and resilience, as someone sticks to a path and achieves professional and financial success despite a litany of obstacles. All the hardship, followed by its eventual overcoming, can be condensed into a single question: what did you make this year? A whole lot of dough from the looks of it.
It’s a question that also seemed destined to appear in a marketing campaign, especially for a company that assists people with income tax returns. So, last year, when TurboTax Canada leveraged it to be the slogan of a new campaign, it was par for the course. The company and its agency, Library Collective, though, saw the question through a different lens, thanks to a pitch by Vancouver-based photographer and director Christian Tisdale.
This grew from my Makers series, a personal project I’ve been working on for almost three years. I connected with the TurboTax team last January, and we chatted about how something like Makers could fit well with their brand story. They loved the idea, so we kept pushing and made it happen. The mechanics of how this all came about was a bit weird, as the agency was brought in after the concept was pitched. They came to provide creative support and lead the charge on finding our subjects across Canada.
Christian’s Makers series doesn’t explore the lives of Canada’s richest and wealthiest. Instead, it spends time with the creators of our communities, individuals who’ve spent years honing a craft through mental and physical effort. For them, it’s a labor of love, whether they’re hunched over a sewing machine or standing in unison with a canvas on an easel.
I’m obsessed with the act of making and the attitude it takes to create something from nothing, to create a tiny piece of order from the chaos. I love the spirit of creation, regardless of the end result.
Based on Christian’s pitch, TurboTax would remain faithful to the vision of Makers in a hybrid stills and video campaign, focusing on everyday folks who need support with life’s responsibilities. Ben Franklin identified death and taxes as the only certainties in life, and maybe TurboTax could help with the latter, taking a weight off your shoulders while you realize your dreams.
The goal was to tell real stories first – these aren’t ads; they’re branded content pieces. The less heavy-handed we could remain on overt brand talk, the better for the authenticity of the stories. We chose subjects from different walks of life, in different parts of the country, chasing very different dreams. Their stories were inspiring to us, and we did our best to make them inspiring to viewers. Ultimately the message for all of this was, “Take a chance, follow your dream, and TurboTax will be there to help along the way.”
The entire project hinged on the perfect casting. There would be no models, only real people. Initially, the team planned on shooting in July 2022. However, finding the ideal subjects for the videos required patience, and plenty of it. Christian, co-director Liam Mullany, and Library Collective needed the candidates to understand the de-financialized premise of the campaign slogan.
What did you make this year? A change? A new beginning? A foundation for a better life?
“We asked each of those folks that same question, specifying the metaphorical meaning. It became clear quite quickly who our best potential subjects were going to be from there.”
They found Lina Vandal in Montreal, Québec, who left her successful advertising career at age 50 to pursue a life in art. They found Andrew Szeto in Wakefield, Québec, who builds everything from boats to houses using recycled material, old skateboards included. In Mission, British Columbia, they found the Blacksmith Boiz, striking the iron on behalf of customers around the world. And finally, in Vancouver, British Columbia, they found Richelle Trelenburg of True Grit Moto, paving the way for a more welcoming environment in the motorcycle community.
Location was also part of the reason for their selection. The second-largest country in the world has its fair share of diversity. While it was to be shown demographically via the subjects, it also had to be evident geographically.
Canada is huge and wildly diverse from a geographical perspective. We wanted to capture at least a slice of that diversity, so locations were big drivers for all of this. Montreal is always amazing, so that was a favorite for sure. We really nailed our team dynamics in Ottawa, which added another layer of magic to the project. Our other two films were shot close to home in Vancouver and Mission. Shooting in the mountains never gets old, especially collaborating with friends to make it happen.
The team first got going in Quebec, working with Lina and Andrew before moving to the Vancouver area for Richelle and the Blacksmith Boiz in November.
The nature of the campaign required a light presence on set. Fewer people on-site typically accommodate greater comfort and ease, especially when the subjects are not professionally trained models.
Most of these folks aren’t used to being in front of the camera, so supporting them was key. With that in mind, I wanted to keep crews as minimal as possible. Typically no more than 6 or 7 people, plus the subjects. Trust is absolutely key when working with real people, so I spent a ton of time on calls with all of them. We met before the shoots and hung out, and I feel like I built real friendships over that time, which was an amazing part of this project. The themes we covered in our interviews were often quite vulnerable, so taking the time to get our subjects fully comfortable was really important to me.
Comfort for the subjects didn’t necessarily carry over to Christian and his team. Fewer hands on deck meant more work per head.
With small crews, everyone needs to be absolutely dialed in, capable of wearing many hats. The 1st AC needs to know the lights, Sound needs to be down to carry C-stands, and the Creative Director has to be hands-on with us. I think it comes from shooting in remote locations outdoors – on those projects, everyone is solving problems far beyond the scope of their job descriptions. Liam and I come from that world, so it’s second nature to us.
Another hurdle emerged when Christian and Liam went down with COVID halfway through production. The remaining shoots in British Columbia had to be rescheduled, but there was nothing in the way of a major derailment.
The most monumental challenge would present itself creatively. TurboTax was taking a gamble, quite unlike a software company that provides financial services. Christian wasn’t making a series of commercials for them, but short documentaries that reveal the lives of the company’s customers. There was no sticking to a script. The script was their lives, so would TurboTax fit into it? Each person had ambitions, but pursuing them required a helping hand. Maybe the grandparents could watch the kids for a day. Maybe the neighbors could drop off the groceries one weekend. And maybe TurboTax could help with the tax returns – the dreaded drudgery of mandatory paperwork.
There’ll always be concerns that the message isn’t going to make it through. But working with the best people available, trusting those people, and the process, is really all we can do to mitigate that risk – the rest is just some version of imposter syndrome.
To that end, Christian appreciated having Liam in his corner. The co-directors follow the mantra of “good vibes = good work.” It’s a sentiment they share with the Blacksmith Boiz, who believe that “working with someone you can’t laugh with is just the worst.” The ethos propelled the Vancouver creative’s work for TurboTax across video and photography. As of this moment, though, it’s unclear if he has a clear preference.
There’s an ebb and flow to the medium I’m more focused on. One week I’m chasing more directing work; the next might be stills. My first love is photography, and I think it probably always will be. But sometimes it’s really tough to express an idea with stills alone. Motion is just another tool in a toolbox for bringing ideas from a weird place in my head to the real world. What draws me to this career is how different every day is, so I could never choose just one.
If that’s anything to go by, this year, Christian made the decision to go with the flow.
See more of Christian’s work on his website.
Co-Directors: Christian Tisdale & Liam Mullany
DP: Liam Mullany
Photographer: Christian Tisdale
Producer: Zanny Venner
Agency: Library Collective
Creative Director: Jed Churcher
Casting Director: Lizzy Weinraub + Cast Partner
Client: TurboTax Canada
Production Manager: Nina LaFlamme
1st ACs: Zion Lipstein-Saffer, Kelvin Wong, Nick Taillefer (across 4 shoots)
Location Sound: Liz Bellotti, Dave Pullmer, Charles Paquin (across 4 shoots)
Editorial: David Peacock
Color: Sam Gilling
Score: Andrew Judah
Sound Design: Grayson Music Group
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