You are hereMagazines 2000-2009 / Eric Saarinen

Eric Saarinen


In describing the work of director/cameraman Eric Saarinen, the phrase that most often crops up is "visually striking." Saarinen, a founding partner of Plum Productions, Santa Monica, has captured images of people "driving" lions, elephants, and giraffes through a busy street, and of an automobile creating massive sand dunes in a desert landscape. The wildlife traffic jam of "Animals," an international :60 for Fiat via Leo Burnett, Milan, won a first place Mobius Award for direction and production in '99, while the desert-set "Drifts" for Chevy Tahoe out of Campbell-Ewald Advertising, Warren, Mich., took several '98 Mobius and New York Festival awards for production, cinematography, and camera work.

"I'm fascinated with the image," says Saarinen, who has directed several more Chevy ads, including "Lighthouse" and "Lifeboat" for Chevy Blazer, again via Campbell-Ewald

Saarinen's visual dexterity comes through in "Lighthouse." The spot opens on a foggy shoreline and a lighthouse. A foghorn sounds, and light sweeps across the water. As the camera moves in on the lighthouse, the punchline becomes apparent: Rather than a bulb, the lighthouse's warning light is actually the headlights of a Chevy Blazer. The spot unfolds without dialogue, except for the voiceover at the end: "Chevy. A little security in an insecure world."

Artistic Genes

Saarinen, 57, inherited his artistic sensibilities from his mother, the sculptress Lily Saarinen, and his father, Eero Saarinen, an architect. His father's prominence in his field drove the younger Saarinen into the film world. "My dad was a famous architect," says Saarinen, "so I felt that I had to do something close to [the arts]. But I didn't want to directly compete with him. Still, in a way, I was always competing with my dad. I wanted to do something that he didn't do. It was exacerbated because everyone was sort of bowing down to him. He was a great man."

That sense of competition pushed Saarinen to create as much as possible—"overachieving," he says—in a variety of areas. As an undergraduate at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., Saarinen studied painting and graphic design. He later earned a master's degree of fine arts from UCLA's film production program.


Saarinen's first professional jobs were for low-budget producer Roger Corman, who was mentor to both George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. Among Saarinen's more colorful credits were: second-unit camera work on Corman's Death Race 2000, and serving as cinematographer for The Hills Have Eyes, one of horror-meister Wes Craven's earliest films. (Craven is currently repped for commercials through bicoastal The Industry.)

Saarinen has since shot over a dozen feature films, including Albert Brooks' Lost In America, Real Life and Modern Romance. He worked on documentaries such as the Academy Award-nominated short Exploratorium, and a film about artists Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenburg and Andy Warhol for the Los Angeles County Museum. Saarinen also did camera work on the Rolling Stones' concert film Gimme Shelter, the TV series The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau, and several National Geographic specials.

In '81, Saarinen circumnavigated the globe two and a half times in 13 months to shoot Symbiosis, a 16-minute, 65mm film for Walt Disney World's Epcot Center, Orlando, Fla.

Through his assignments, Saarinen has learned to search for the perfect visual. "I do my own camera work," he says. "If you're at a certain place and a certain time and you take a picture, there is some kind of permanence about that; you're memorializing the moment in a way no one else can do it. I'm half-blind, which they didn't find out until I was eight years old. Since my eyes were screwed up, I studied a lot of tricks of depth to compensate for that. I think it gives me an unusual vision."

March 24, 2000