Q&A: Get to Know Hello Stranger
by Jordan P. Kelley, Content Director, BrandStorytelling
Want weekly exclusive brand storytelling content like this direct to your inbox? Subscribe to the Brand Storytelling Newsletter.
Hello Stranger is helmed by filmmakers April Hayes, Kristen Lewis, and Michael Smith. Together they combine award-winning, human-centered storytelling with decades of creative leadership experience to offer full-service global production capabilities. Throughout their careers, their work has been awarded Emmys, Webbys, One Show Pencils, Cannes Lions, Art Directors Club, Shots, Vimeo Staff Picks, Camerimage, Anthem Awards, D&AD Pencils, Brand Film Awards and has been honored by the Sundance Film Festival, Cinema Eye Honors, Human Rights Watch, ACLU and more. BrandStorytelling caught up with HelloStranger to learn more about how their cumulative experience impacts their perception and approach to storytelling for brands and to learn more about their project with Atlas Obscura and Travel Nevada:
What brought the three of you together to start Hello Stranger?
We had a shared vision but each came to human-centered storytelling from three different backgrounds and worlds: Independent documentary film (April), Advertising and Brand (Kristen) and Editorial and Literary (Michael). We’d all worked on the inside as well: Michael spent 8 years leading Airbnb editorial storytelling, while Kristen and April met and became directing partners while leading documentary storytelling at Google.
We sensed that combining expertise in each of these areas would offer something different and valuable for clients— big creative strategic thinking, a hyper-efficient production model and the ability to deliver elevated, award-winning documentary storytelling for brands.
What do you think are the greatest opportunities when working with brands? What are the greatest challenges?
For us, the biggest opportunity is the ability to uncover stories that truly bring that brand’s values or mission to life. It needs to be a win/win for the brand and for creative storytelling. There are so many real stories out there that need to be told, that have the power to shift narratives, to dispel stereotypes, and to truly have a positive impact on culture. Most documentary storytelling costs far, far less than most commercials —which brands are starting to realize. So there’s the obvious funding that brands bring to the table. But another, sometimes overlooked opportunity is looking through that advertising lens to get creative about how people see these stories. Brands have platforms, events and partnerships that can be leveraged and great brand partners bring innovative strategies to the table.
The biggest challenge (and it’s a biggie) is that this sort of documentary storytelling is deeply impactful for audiences, but isn’t as instantly measurable as growth campaigns are. Marketing budgets can be linked to quarterly KPIs, which doesn’t really align with the length of time that some doc projects take to capture. So it takes time, patience, and faith on behalf of brand leadership to give these projects room to breathe and to prove over time the exponential value of this type of storytelling.
What inspired the choice to make documentaries for brands? What potential do you think there is for brands telling these kinds of stories?
Almost every brand has a set of mission and values, often seen on their “About” page on their website or spoken about in speeches by their CEO. To us, branded documentaries can bring these values to life and showcase a brand’s commitment to them (and to society) in a way that scripted material just can’t. In documentary, that layer of artifice is gone. Authentic, human storytelling shows commitment to exploring the true, dimensional experience of people, not just a soundbite. Gaining a deeper understanding or finding commonality in another person’s experience can be very powerful for audiences—and that powerful shift, on some level, will be connected to your brand.
But it can be tricky. We’ve all seen a great branded documentary get attached to a brand and after watching it, you kinda scratch your head, like ‘What does an energy drink have to do with the water crisis again?’ That lack of clear connection can be a real disservice to branded documentary storytelling as a whole, because it can position this type of storytelling work as extraneous versus foundational for a brand.
What type of documentary storytelling does Hello Stranger specialize in?
Collectively, we’ve done all shapes and sizes of documentary storytelling: from a 17-minute festival short doc acquired by The New Yorker Documentary, to a branded doc (April and Kristen’s first project together at Google won the Webby for Branded Documentary) to features. Between us, we’ve tackled a six-continent adventure travel launch for Airbnb Adventures and led a multi-episode, multi-year branded global documentary series (“Search On”) for Google. From animated short docs for brands and audio storytelling projects, to explainer videos and launch campaigns for start-ups featuring customers, we know how to create the right size project to fit the needs of the brands we’re partnering with.
Tell us more about your recent work with Travel Nevada/Atlas Obscura?
We were commissioned by Atlas Obscura in partnership with Travel Nevada to make two short documentaries that celebrate the off-the-beaten-path, weird, and unexpected places that travelers can find buried deep in the Nevada desert. Our 3-person crew conducted dozens of interviews and dug through mounds of archival to piece together layered stories that both educate and inspire travelers to reconsider what lives between the cities.
Ghosts of Tonopah
Towns like Tonopah are often discovered—by accident—en route from one place to another. By weaving together the voices of people who have been there, who are there now, and who never left, we explored what we can learn about American life—and ourselves—when we face fear and fascination in the middle of the desert.
The Basque Connection
The Martin Hotel in Winnemucca has been a cornerstone of the Basque community for over a century. A boarding house for herders, a place where language and tradition is preserved and passed—like the food—from one generation to the next. We followed locals who consider The Martin a second home.
What do pre-production, production, and post look like not only as a trio of creatives, but as a group collaborating with brands?
When we collaborate with brands, we start wherever they are. If they come to us and say “We want to do something, but don’t know exactly what”, we can find the right story for them, outline where the storytelling can live across their existing ecosystem, create an impact campaign, and handle everything on the film from casting to pre-pro to directing to post-production. Or maybe they have an in-house creative team, and just want some production help and a director. Because we’ve done so much of this for so long, and we’re lean, we really can shape shift.
Between the three of us, each of us are directors, but each of us also has other skill sets. For example, when one of us directs, the other two manage client relationships, photography, and production needs. We always advise and partner with each other to ensure the most comprehensive strategic and artistic work.
What’s next for Hello Stranger?
We’re currently in varying stages of production for a few brand clients, and always on the lookout for brand partners that want to make something special and unique. We’re in late stages of production on one feature documentary and in development on another feature project. Ultimately, our ambition is to use documentary storytelling to bring commonality and connection to audiences and for our work to be additive to the cultural conversation, thought-provoking and beautiful. That’s our goal across the board—in partnerships with brands and for our passion projects.