Don't think for a minute that Natalie Hill's world is laid back just because she hails from the Caribbean. The Trinidad and Tobago native has been working as DGA-Award-winning commercials director Dante Ariola's UPM for eight years. So for a commercial with special effects that might take feature films months to nail down, Hill is lucky to get four weeks—including prep.
"The pressure is intense," the L.A.-based Hill laughs. "We just did a 60-second spot for Rhapsody [online music retailer] that had one week to shoot rooftop background plates all over New York City. I was serial calling the guy at the Chelsea Hotel to make sure we had an agreement and he was nowhere to be found. I finally got a call back one hour before our crew showed up."
Ariola and Hill first met on a $6 million, 22-day shoot for XM Satellite that the UPM calls one of their toughest ever. "We built a quarter-scale barn set in Lancaster [Calif.] to shoot at sunrise," she remembers. "When we arrived at dawn, we found one piece of wood left—the wind had blown it down during the night. I immediately called the insurance company, and when the adjuster came out, he said, 'No wonder this barn fell down. It had no foundation.'
Expect—and prepare—for the worst is Hill's survival mantra. Such as the time eight days of footage for a PlayStation 3 spot arrived from Mexico unusable after being X-rayed in Customs. Fortunately, Hill had used a U.K. insurance firm that covered mishaps outside the U.S.
"Then there was the Travelers Insurance spot we did in an underwater tank in Sun Valley," she says, wincing at the memory. "The HydroFlex housing on the camera kept breaking down and we were delayed. Suddenly I saw the medic running in and saying our actor got the bends. Everything shut down and I was back on the phone with the insurance adjustors once again."
Although Hill says she would love to UPM one of those Apple commercials—two actors in a room and nothing else—clients want Ariola for his visionary and complex spots, so she doubts she'll be slowing down anytime soon. "I guess you could say that being a commercial UPM is a bit like childbirth," Hill concludes. "Shooting a different job every six weeks, in a different location around the world, requires a very short memory. If you think about how difficult it is, you'd never do it again."