May 2004

Directing Commercials

Commercial directors have a tough job these days. They used to have a full 30 seconds to tell their stories, but that's changing.


Director Baker Smith

"The format seems to be more like 25 seconds now, just because sometimes there's information that needs to get passed with an art card," says 2002 DGA Award-winning commercial director Baker Smith. "Taking up five seconds in my world for an art card is like telling a feature guy he's got to carve 45 minutes out of his movie. To this day, I don't know if I've figured out how we are actually able to squeeze all that stuff in and make it work in half a minute."

Smith knows of what he speaks having directed acclaimed spots for Fox Sports, Heineken, Mini Cooper and Canal Plus. In addition to the DGA Award, his commercials have received honors from the Museum of Modern Art and the Association of Independent Commercial Producers' (AICP) Show in 2002 and 2003.

Storytelling in the commercial director's world is unique. They develop an uncanny ability to tell a complete story in seconds, with the additional challenge of making their audience remember "the Brand." And because their jobs are unique, the DGA has recognized that these directors have special needs.

Changing Times/Changing Issues

As times and technology change, though, directors' needs vary, and the DGA intends to continue to grow with them. For instance, long before it was addressed by the other guilds, the DGA in its 2000 negotiations with the AICP achieved full contract coverage for members who made commercials that appeared on the Internet. "We have to watch how advertising changes, and really make sure that as it does, we are protecting the work of our commercial directors and assistant directors," says DGA Eastern Executive Director Russell Hollander. "We want to do more to address their needs and are anxious to hear from them about what those needs are."

The Guild recently took action to address so-called "offshore" commercial production, something of great concern to many commercial directors. "It's disappointing to see clients wanting to go offshore for, sometimes, the wrong reasons," says director Elma Garcia. With multiple Clio nominations, an Emmy, Addy and Mobius Awards, Garcia made a name for herself with commercials for, among others, Jack Daniels, Northwest Airlines, Coca Cola and Levi's 501 jeans.

"The move offshore is tough, because you really want to shoot in the United States," Garcia added. "You have a family of crew that work with you. I've been working with the same people for 13 years." In the face of runaway production, the Guild has increased its vigilance of companies traveling abroad to ensure their compliance sending "the family," namely the 1st AD, with the director.

Last year, the Guild's National Board announced an initiative to organize foreign production companies. "Through this program, we want to make our members aware that they can work for foreign production companies," explains Hollander. "If a foreign company signs a contract with the Guild, the contract only covers work done abroad by directors employed in the U.S. Until now there has been a lot of confusion regarding the scope of the agreement. Now that this confusion has been cleared up, we expect and hope that this will open up a lot of opportunity to DGA members to work on commercials outside the United States."

Director Paula Walker

Putting Their Mark on the Agency Script

A director's involvement with the script can vary dependent upon the agency and the director themselves. "No agency will work with you again if you just shoot the board they gave you," says director Bryan Buckley, a partner in Hungry Man, a production house specializing in comedy. Buckley was the 1999 DGA Commercial Directing Award winner for his, e*trade and commercials.

And as commercial director/video king Tarsem says, "I charge too much for a guy who you just come and give storyboards to." And Gillespie stresses that, "commercials are not purely an art form. It's walking that tightrope that people feel comfortable with."

However, others say that they must juggle their vision for a spot with the requirements of the advertising agency, especially when the complete concept has already been established and finalized. "By the time you get the boards, everybody's agreed on it," says director Benny Boom, who not only directed commercials for Reebok, Footlocker and Jolly Rancher but is also an acclaimed music video director for such artists as P. Diddy, Nas, Nelly, Kelly Rowland, Lil' Kim and L. L. Cool Jay. "Everybody's already on the same page. There's no part of the client or agency that's differing from anyone else once that board has been finished and the director's been hired."

Another difference for some commercial directors is their relative absence from the post production process. "A lot of times, as commercial directors, we shoot the spot, but then we can feel empty afterward, because we don't spend those hours in the transfer or in the edit bay or on-lining," explains Boom. "It's like going through a pregnancy and not taking the baby home; somebody else takes the baby home." Adds Baker Smith, "There are times when I wish I could say, 'Hey, can I have a day with the editor?' "

In the November 2000 issue of DGA Magazine, DGA Award-winning commercial director Stu Hagmann, also a member of the 2000 DGA Negotiating Committee, recalled that, "Thirty years ago when production companies released commercials on 16mm film, it afforded the director involvement in the cutting. Now the trend is to eliminate the director from this process entirely."

However, editing situations do vary. Gillespie, who comes from an agency background, says, "I've never had an issue where agencies have a problem with me being involved in the edit. They love you to be involved, because it's just more feedback for them. But they've got an agenda that they're dealing with outside of purely creative issues. They have client concerns to think about."

"It really helps to spend a lot of time in editing rooms," adds director Jim Jenkins. "It also helps you to edit as you're shooting. You have a real sense on the set about what is and isn't funny." Being able to edit in one's head while shooting is important, since, in many cases, it is the agency who selects the editor for the commercial.

"It's really a very different process," says Craig Gillespie. "It's a whole collaborative venture between the advertiser, the ad agency, the production house and the director."

"We are in the midst of forming a Creative Rights Commercial Directors Committee, in tandem with AICP," says DGA Assistant Executive Director Jon Larson. "The purpose of that committee is to look at ways of enhancing the director's involvement in all phases of the commercial."

As Jon Larson explains, though, the Guild would like to pave the way for directors to have more input into their spots. "We feel that our directors should have more contact with the advertisers themselves than they currently do. And one way to enhance that is to show the advertisers how valuable a director's vision is, early on, from development of storyboards, on through to taking the time to allow a director's cut of the spot.

"On a purely economic level," Larson adds, "it holds the potential of saving the client a lot of money. Not having the director intimately involved with the whole look and feel and sound of that 15- or 30-second story is actually not taking advantage of an important tool. And giving the director the opportunity to make a first pass at a cut can often make the post production process happen more expeditiously."

(Top) Director Elma Garcia (below) director Bryan Buckley and Ozzy Osbourne

It's Measured in Seconds

It is the talent of commercial directors to turn the agency's idea into a complete 30-second sales tale that makes them invaluable. "You have to assume at the beginning of the spot that someone has no interest in what they're watching," Buckley says. "You have to give them a moment to sit there with the spot, get into the story, and start moving them along."

"You have to be really precise, because your shots have to read quickly," says director Paula Walker. "Every frame, every action that you're filming has got to further the story line, but in a very concise, very tight way," adds Elma Garcia.

"In the nuts-and-bolts aspect, what we do is the same as longer format films," says Baker Smith. "We just have to do it all in the blink of an eye, compared to other formats." Experience leads good commercial directors to learn how to trim the fat from scripts, something useful for those who move into features. "I've been doing this 15 years now, so I'm now able to read a script and say, 'OK, this is great, but it's not 30 seconds. Can we trim dialogue?' Commercial directors excel at making those one- or two-second cuts, to really advance the story quickly."

"I tend to over – storyboard, and then look at the shots to really figure out what the essentials are," explains Paula Walker. "I might shoot some extra material, just so I have some stuff in my back pocket."

"The desire at the agency level is to try to create a feeling about a specific product," says director Kevin S. Smith. "It's not hard to create a feeling — that's easy. But it's hard to create a feeling about a product."

The best ways to do that is either through eye-grabbing visuals or through comedy. Of the former, directors such as Tarsem and David Fincher (also a music video veteran/pioneer), among others, create extraordinary visions, again, all within the framework of a 30- or 60-second spot.

"I sell eye candy!" exclaims Tarsem. For experienced, visually or concept-oriented filmmakers such as Tarsem and Spike Jonze, creating that entertaining imagery, and, thus, a feeling the viewer will associate with the product, is enough to sell that product. "I think if you make a good commercial, they'll remember it," says Jonze. "I'd rather make the mistake of making a good spot that maybe someone doesn't remember the brand the first time, but will after seeing it a few times. It will ultimately be more memorable, and, therefore, more effective."

Director Benny Boom

Many such spots, as do many comedic ads, feature little or no dialogue, again something fairly unique in the filmmaking world of the commercial director. "The kind of quiet you can create by not having people speak is very attention-getting," says Scott Burns. Again, both visual and comedic skills make the spots work, particularly when creating ads which will run in more than one country. "In Europe, ads have to sell visually," adds Tarsem. "They put them up on a satellite and assume everybody doesn't speak the same language."

Comedic commercials represent 75% - 85% of spots on the air, according to Bryan Buckley. Buckley has received consecutive best of the Super Bowl honors as determined by Advertising Age and The New York Times. "Comedy disarms the brand — suddenly the brand becomes less serious about themselves, and they can laugh or make fun of themselves."

"It's hard not to laugh at physical comedy," says Gillespie, also among the best in the comedic commercial genre, and nominated for the DGA Award for such memorable spots as "Kiss Reunion" for Holiday Inn Express, "Delivery Room"/"College Tuition" for Citibank, "Plumber" for Ameritech and "Welcome Wagon" for SBC. "It's important to have a really simple idea, for which you have a lot of time to set it up the gag," before sideswiping the audience with the unexpected — all, again, weaving the product into the story. One such spot of Gillespie's features a couple of guys sitting in a car outside a 7-Eleven, enjoying greasy munchies. The slovenly passenger meticulously licks the cheese from the fingertips, as the car's driver looks on with an astonished, disgusted expression — finally pulling his hand away from his friend's mouth! "You have to try to never telegraph the joke, to let them know it's coming, or to manipulate the audience when they're supposed to laugh," says Gillespie. "They start to resent it."

Because of the limited time in commercials, directing actors also takes special skills. "There's no time for back-story," notes Buckley. For the 7-Eleven spot, says Gillespie, "The amount of direction the actors got regarding what was going on in their heads took longer than the spot did! Homophobic connotations, whether we should discuss this with anybody, or just let it go. And you see all that going on in their eyes."

Baker Smith at work

Occasionally, the commercial director gets to work with celebrity actors, such as Buckley's Pepsi Twist spot featuring Ozzy Osbourne and clan, or Jim Jenkins' American Express ad with directing legend Martin Scorsese critiquing his own photographic skills to the kid at the pharmacy photo counter as he reviews his 5-year-old nephew's birthday party "shoot." With Scorsese, as with the actors in another spot Jenkins created for TCM in which residents of a retirement home reenact classic scenes from boxing classic Rocky, the key for Jenkins is, "You have to make them realize you're not making fun of them. With Scorsese, you don't simply make it so he just plows the photo counter kid over. You have to like him for his own self-angst over these birthday party pictures."

For directors who have made the jump from directing commercials to directing features, the change can mean a chance to utilize skills other directors may not have. "The tools of film are very expensive," notes Tarsem, who directed 2000's The Cell. "Guys from our background bring that package with them."

"Commercials are very precise," says Paul Hunter. "They're two-week stints in which you're trying to jam six or 10 shots into 30 seconds to tell a story." Budget-wise, the commercial director often has more money per day to work with. "On a commercial," says Hunter, "you basically shoot your big stuff in one day, whereas in a movie, you're spreading it out over time. You have to budget for where the most impact is and concentrate your efforts there."

Commercial and Feature Directors Trading Spaces

Commercial directors often make good feature directors because they are already well-versed in storytelling tools. On the other hand, feature directors often enjoy shooting commercials. "It's not a two-year commitment," says F. Gary Gray. "It's a good way to have fun, a good way to learn, a good way to meet new people, innovatively and creatively." John Landis notes, "One of the unusual things about being a film director is you really don't get to 'practice' — in a real way, in a way that's dealing with new equipment, crew and actors, in a big way. Commercials are a wonderful way to keep in practice."

The chance to work in a variety of genres is also a substantial advantage of directing commercials which is one reason feature directors take the plunge into this fast-paced world. In several weeks, a director can jump from action spots to drama to comedy, without being locked into the multi-year process of creating a feature. "There are fewer established rules in the way you tell a story for commercials than in features," says Alfonso Cuaron, currently in post on the next installment of Harry Potter. "It's a great little short story you get to play with."

(Top) Director Craig Gillespie and (below) Spike Jonze

While feature directors may have different creative rights needs from those of commercial directors, the Guild, of course, protects commercial directors' other rights, in the same ways as it does for feature and television directors. "I've had the DGA aid me, coming in with some point of support," says Buckley. "They've been a great place to turn for advice, and they will back you with support." When a production company balked at paying Buckley for a project after he left the organization, he contacted the Guild, and, "Lo and behold, two days later, a check came."

"The Commercial Agreement enforces not only the terms of the agreement itself, but also of any of the director's own personal service agreements," explains Jon Larson. "The DGA staff and the legal staff that we bring to the table is quite a benefit for our commercial members."

Members profit from other benefits provided by their Guild, particularly seminars and committees. "The seminars have been really helpful," says Paula Walker. "It's a way of reaching out and meeting other people. As a commercial director, you tend to be more isolated, because your projects come a lot faster and are more on top of each other. So the seminars make me feel like I'm connected to a community." That connection also provides support for those commercial directors seeking advice from their feature peers when making the transition to that format. Last year the Guild hosted a standing-room-only panel for commercial directors on the challenges in transitioning to features and television.

DGA membership also affords director members connection with top-quality DGA 1st ADs. "It's the difference between the professional 1st AD who is going to keep the spot on track and under budget, versus the non-DGA AD out there who may not have the experience to provide that kind of support," says Larson.

And, of course, there's the health insurance and pension plans offered by the Guild. "It makes a huge difference, particularly in a freelance industry, to have the security of a pension," Larson notes.

Putting It All Together

So how can the DGA further benefit commercial directors? For many, creative rights is the very thing lacking in their work in the commercial world. "I'd like to have it be a contractual matter that we would have, say, two days to present our cut. And then they can take it from there and go," says Baker Smith. He adds, though, "There is no relationship between the DGA and the advertising agency community, like there would be between a studio and the Guild. It may be something that has to come from the production community."

Commercial directors still yearn for yet more of a sense of community from their Guild. "The only time that there's any sort of gathering of commercial directors at the Guild is at the Awards show at the end of the year," says Buckley. "You'll bid against people for years and never see their faces. There are some common issues that could be discussed if groups of directors were together, from suppliers to how to win business. I don't have a problem sharing that stuff, and I think many directors would very much like to share with their peers."

"There needs to be more of an environment where you can hear somebody else's side of the story, to share experiences," says Baker Smith. "Oftentimes you go, 'Oh, thank God — I thought I was a hack.' Or maybe I am a hack, but at least there's another hack in the business! When some of the big guys talk about being stuck and not sure what to do, and then share how they got through it, it gives you inspiration."

Larson notes, "We're always endeavoring to expand the programming that we offer commercial directors and their teams here. We'd like to put together more panels, and ones that are of specific interest to that group, perhaps panels between creatives at an agency and the directors and production companies. We want to create more opportunities for the commercial director to visit this building more often, and engage in dialogue that's germane to what they spend their days doing."


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