A native of Venice imbues fashion films and music videos with eclectic creative energy

By Jason Strangis

Ace Norton (right, with Shaq) brings artistic flair to short films, music videos and commercials

Ace Norton’s commercial work is a lot like his music videos. And his music videos for the likes of Foster the People and Regina Spektor exemplify the color-rich, tightly choreographed, indulgent, surrealist and explosive visual storytelling that elevates the genre from advertising vehicle to art.

It’s an aesthetic he’s further developed in the world of fashion films — high production value narrative shorts in which mannequins come to life as ballet dancers in a BMW showroom at midnight, Mercedes-driving fashion models become high-heeled ninjas battling for a parking space, beautiful women kidnap a muscular Land Rover driver for their shirtless crew of domestic servants, and a lonely socialite dressed in Rhié’s autumn/winter line goes to whimsical extremes to alleviate her boredom in a luxurious mansion.

“I like to experiment in different mediums and genres,” the 36-year-old filmmaker says, “and I like to keep things fun and entertaining. That’s sort of what my work is about. … I’m kind of like this eclectic ball of anything and everything.”

It’s a creative milieu that could also describe Venice, where Norton grew up and continues to live. As a native of the grittier, more laissez faire Venice of the 1980s and early ’90s, he dreamed of becoming a professional skateboarder before life zigzagged in another direction after he broke his tailbone in a freak accident.

“Basically for a year I couldn’t do any physical activities. My dad had an old 8mm movie camera. I would take that camera and I’d just make these little short films after school each day. That’s how my love for filmmaking happened.”

After graduating from Crossroads School for the Arts and Sciences, Norton enrolled in USC’s prestigious School of Cinematic Arts but left after three years to start working. Even though film is part of his family’s DNA — Norton’s grandfather was a screenwriter, his mom is a script supervisor and his dad directs scripted TV — he had a tough time convincing his parents about going to film school and leaving it early, until the work started flowing in.

“I dropped out because I wanted to get a head start on this whole filmmaking thing to pay my bills,” he says. “I worked at a restaurant, and during my time off I’d go to clubs and hustle bands to direct their music videos. I’d also sneak into the animation department at USC with my old student ID, and
I’d animate these music videos. It started with music videos, and from there I sort of graduated to bigger ads and fashion stuff.”

Norton’s music videos tend to be fast-paced, fun and frenetic — reminiscent of 1980s MTV glory, but sleeker and more visually crisp. He’ll have a guitarist or trumpeter play a solo on fire, but slow motion the burn for a more elegant, emotive and impressive pyrotechnic statement.

His commercial work skyrocketed quickly, with major brands seeking out Norton to shoot complex choreography, video-game aesthetics and creative celebrity endorsements. In under a decade he’s shot in London, Paris, Japan, China and Hawaii, scooped up dozens of industry awards (including Best Director at Fashion Film Festival Milano), and worked with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Jennifer Lopez and Shaquille O’Neal — just to name a few.

“I’m kind of shocked by all the people I’ve worked with. It’s pretty amazing,” he says. “I have the best job in the world, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

For continued creative inspiration, Norton always finds himself returning home to Venice.

“This area has shaped me to become what I am today,” he says. “Venice is like a two-mile stretch of sand with a combination of skateboarders, artists, actors, musicians, filmmakers and more. It’s kind of a melting pot of anything and everything. It has helped shape my sensibility and my taste for the weird, quirky stuff.”

Watch Ace Norton’s music videos and short films at acenorton.com