If you’ve ever found yourself unable to turn away from a car commercial on television, you’re probably looking at the work of Jeff Zwart. Highly regarded as a director of fast-action TV commercials, this fifty-eight-year-old from Los Angeles has been behind the camera for a number of advertising spots that people still check out on YouTube, like “Still Building Rockets” for Corvette, “Family Tree” for Porsche, and, most recently, “Cadillac ATS vs. the World” for Cadillac. At heart, Zwart is simply one of us, a driving enthusiast mesmerized by the experience of speed. We interviewed him at his shop in L.A., where an array of Soap Box Derby race cars from past decades hangs on the wall above file cabinets brimming with thousands of photographic images from a career that began in 1979.
When I was twelve, my friend Freeman and I would wait at the entrance to our little development of townhomes in California on our Sting-Ray bicycles until the coolest cars in the neighborhood would come home, and then we’d pedal as fast as we could to get to their garage before the door shut. There was one guy with a Porsche 911S who did time trials, and we would watch him work on his car. It’s amazing that Freeman Thomas would grow up to be the designer of the Volkswagen New Beetle and the Audi TT and is now a director of strategic design for Ford, and that I should be a photographer of cars and a director of commercials about them. It’s just like that television commercial of a kid visiting a Porsche dealership, only it turns out to be true.
Actually, I started out to be a veterinarian for large animals. It was hard to get in a university program for it in California, so I began my studies in Germany. On weekends, I would take the train to see races — Formula 1 or sports car races. I loved racing and wanted to be a part of it, but I knew nothing about how to be a racing driver. Then I noticed that there were these guys who seemed to get the closest to everything, and they were the photographers. When I came home after a summer, I enrolled at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. All the other photography students just wanted to take pictures of products or girls, so I made friends with the guys in the department of transportation design. All the greats were there then, even Freeman, who arrived just as I graduated in 1979.
When I started out, I mounted a camera on a Datsun Z-Car with T-tops to get a unique perspective, and then I started mounting cameras everywhere on the car for a real view of what it’s like to drive fast. Soon, I began taking pictures for Northrop aviation and was certified by the Navy to ride in the back seat of the F/A-18 Hornet. The objective was to shoot a picture as a participant, not an observer. My point of view on photography has always been that it is quite simple, and it’s all about choosing the right angle and then crafting the look. It’s all about the visual representation of speed.
The process of taking pictures is something that I relate to the form of motor-sport that I love most, which is rallying. I’ve been fortunate to rally all over the world and even won the 1990 SCCA ProRally championship. Generally all of that stuff is what we call a blind rally, which means that you really don’t know where you’re going. All you have as a driver is a few cues from your navigator and the experience from all the roads that you’ve driven. This helps you know the shape of a corner even before you get there.
With the shoot for a television commercial, it’s the same thing. You leave in the darkness, and you set yourself into a process that reacts to the changes of the light during the day. It’s a long road and you don’t know where it’s going, so you have to summon up all your experience along the way. And when the sun sets, you have to be done.
My parents drove Volkswagen Beetles, and then one day my father bought a used Porsche 356. Finally, he bought a 1964 Porsche 356C, a brand-new car. Soon after, on my ninth birthday, he announced that he, my mother, and I would drive that car from Delaware where we then lived to the Indianapolis 500. From then on, I was hooked on Porsche and racing.
Years later, after we had moved to Los Angeles, my dad said one day at breakfast that he was going to teach me to drive. We went out to the garage and I thought we would take the Beetle, but instead he chose the used Porsche 911 that he had bought. He said it was more powerful than the Beetle and I wouldn’t stall it as much. That’s how I learned to drive in the parking lot of a horse-racing track in a 1964 Porsche 911. It was chassis number thirty-five, just a used car in those days but an icon today.
As a kid, I delivered newspapers on my Sting-Ray, and my dad made me put half of the money I earned into the stock market. I wasn’t allowed to touch it until I graduated from high school. In 1974, I bought a yellow 1970 Porsche 914/6 that I still have today.
In 1987, After ten years of taking pictures of cars and airplanes, I was lucky that American Photographer did a cover story about me. After that, I got three offers to direct television commercials. Action at 1/125th of a second was getting a little old, so I went to work for Henry Sandbank, an important figure in the business who would teach me. Today his company is called Radical Media.
All of a sudden I had a different infrastructure, but the key was that I didn’t need to do anything different. The car did the same choreography, only I was using a different camera. Film is really just a sequence of stills, except the camera is better. To this day, I use a storyboard to represent every single sequence in a commercial.
In the beginning, we did all our work for thirty-second spots on television, but now we have entered an era where content is more important. We’re shooting longer things, not shorter. For the around-the-world project with the Cadillac ATS, we came back with nine commercials, twenty short films, and even more behind-the-scenes content.
My passion for Porsche has led me into all kinds of adventures. When the Porsche 911 Carrera 4 was introduced in 1989, we first had the idea of taking it to Pikes Peak, which is like driving the Nürburgring Nordschleife, except that it goes straight up into the clouds. Over the years I’ve run at Pikes Peak thirteen times — eleven times in nine different Porsches — and won my class seven times.
One of the most interesting of the Pikes Peak runs with Porsche came in 2011, when we did it in a street-legal Porsche 911 GT2 RS. Porsche Motorsport did the safety conversion of the car, but that’s all. We prepared it for the event here in Los Angeles, then I drove it 1100 miles to Colorado, put the sponsorship stickers on it, and raced to the top of Pikes Peak. You can see the films we made about it on YouTube.
Since I’m always scouting locations, I drive everywhere. My Porsche 911 GT3 RS had about 40,000 miles on it when I sold it, and now my 911 RS 4.0 has 12,000 miles on it. Really, when I see a picture, I’m looking through a windshield.
At this point, I’m not intimidated by anything about a car — not by power and not by value. This really liberates you to find your own limits, and this is the secret to photography and filmmaking, not just driving. That’s the way the Porsche 911 makes me a better driver. There’s a challenge to learn the car’s limits in a way that makes it useful, and there’s always something to improve as a driver.
For the same reason, I make a picture every day, even if it’s just with my iPhone. It’s all part of the same thing.