BY AMY FARMER
Director Lance Acord
Make it real. That was how commercial director Lance Acord approached his recent ad for Apple, “Misunderstood.” The TV spot features a nostalgic, multi-generational family gathering at Christmas. The “misunderstood” one is a grandchild who appears fixated on his iPhone, but is actually surreptitiously videoing the reunion for a surprise montage for the family.
Except for casting that one role, Acord envisioned shooting the commercial with an actual extended family, and scouted until he found one in Calgary, Canada, that looked and felt right for the story. He quizzed the family on their holiday traditions, then filmed them doing exactly those things: baking cookies, building a snowman, and at times hugging one another.
“It was very much like making a documentary,” says Acord, who is also a cinematographer and co-founder of Park Pictures, which represents a large roster of commercial and feature directors.
It is fair to say that creating a powerful sense of authenticity is an overarching theme in Acord’s commercial work. Advertisers like Levi’s, Volkswagen, Apple and Nike return to him again and again for his nuanced approach and skill at eliciting performances that feel honest to viewers—and often are.
In his Procter & Gamble ad, “Pick Them Back Up,” which aired during this year’s Winter Olympics, viewers watched four toddlers mature into competitive athletes with the support of their moms. Although the concept presented a formidable casting challenge, Acord believed he could draw out more genuine emotions if he used actual mothers and their sports-minded children. Therefore, when a young, novice snowboarder cries tears of frustration for failing to quickly master a maneuver, those tears are real. And the woman who comforts him is his real mother.
“The only way to pull that off,” says Acord, “was to spend a lot of time with the kids and their moms.” He dedicated months to that commercial, crisscrossing Canada several times to shoot snow scenes that appeared lifted from the Sochi Winter Olympic games. He kept his camera rolling until his subjects forgot he was shooting and relaxed into themselves.
Acord prefers to keep his crew and equipment pared down, working with the same small, familiar team whenever possible. Non-actors, he finds, are less intimidated by this stripped-down approach. He also does most of the shooting, often blasting through a generous amount of footage on a digital Arri Alexa. “It’s liberating to not have to think twice,” says Acord, who was a longtime film holdout and no longer worries about rolling out.
Less inclined to incorporate the razzle dazzle of postproduction effects, Acord immerses himself in preproduction. It’s the same hands-on approach he takes when working as director of photography on such features as Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are (2009), and, most recently, John Slattery’s God’s Pocket (2014).
“For me,” he says, “especially with the more natural or motivated approach to lighting that I always take, it’s extremely important to scout or plan your shoot accordingly. The narrow window of light between two buildings, that hits the sidewalk just right at a certain time of day—I’ll plan my day around that.”
In fact, Acord orchestrated the entire shoot for the Emmy-nominated Nike commercial, “Find Your Greatness—Jogger,” around 15 minutes of gorgeous twilight, when the fading pastel hues in the sky could also be construed as dawn. This severely prescribed time frame precipitated “a white knuckle experience.” However, he adds, “I like the challenge of that, and I do it quite often.”
ON THE FLY: Acord will do anything to achieve authenticity, including spontaneously shooting in the back of a flatbed truck for a Firestone spot. (Photo: Baxter)
At once minimalist and suspenseful, the ad was shot as a single take: A lone runner on a country road first appears as a speck in the distance. The enigmatic figure steadily advances, his lumbering gait audible. Only in the final few seconds did Acord present viewers with a vivid close-up of a startlingly overweight 12 year old who, it’s implied, is aspiring to greatness.
Acord credits the late cinematographer Harris Savides with heavily influencing his aesthetic. “What I got from Harris is that the simplest approach is often the best approach,” says Acord, who worked with Savides shooting fashion videos for director and photographer Bruce Weber.
“I didn’t rise though the ranks the usual way,” explains Acord, who was attending the San Francisco Art Institute, making 16 mm student films, when he viewed Let’s Get Lost, Weber’s Oscar-nominated documentary on jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, seductively shot in black and white by Jeff Preiss. “I said, ‘I want to do what that guy is doing behind the camera,’” recalls Acord, who wound his way to Weber’s employ in New York.
Nominated three times for the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Commercials, Acord gravitates toward work that doesn’t take a hard sell approach, as well as to clients who embrace his collaborative instincts. Many times, he says, an agency script arrives on his desk and it can spark an entirely different idea.
A recent Firestone ad, for example, started out as a fairly straightforward story of a girl jumping out of her bedroom window to elope with her boyfriend. Her father chases their vehicle on foot, followed by the mother. Thinking about how he could best shoot it, Acord says, “There was something about that moment. I lost confidence in being able to portray it in a way that wouldn’t come off as fake or corny.”
He started envisioning other elements and story points. He set up the mom and dad running errands and then returning to their rural home just as the young couple is making their getaway. He added a family dog, which hops into the young lovers’ truck before it rumbles down the dirt driveway. The two pickups skid to a halt, nose to nose. “I liked the surprise intention of that,” says Acord, who allowed a few beats, during which everyone looks startled and confused, including the dog. Then the young couple backs up and peels off.
By the end of the day, Acord had bagged everything he needed. “But it was still light out,” he recalls. “I thought, let’s shoot until it gets dark.” He jumped into the camera car and was tailing the pickup when it accidentally ran out of gas. That prompted another idea. “I said, you know, let’s try and make something out of this, there’s a gas can in the back.” He shot a scene showing the young man out of gas on his way to pick up his bride. “And while we’re out here,” Acord told the actor, “sit her up on the pickup truck and have a moment between the two of you.” The actor lifted her up in her white bridal gown and giddily twirled her around.
“You often find with your actors,” explains Acord, “that you get the most out of them in those situations”—when everyone is liberated from the script and storyboards and can be more spontaneous. And sure enough, when it came time to edit the commercial, he says, “both of those moments made it into the cut.”