The audience gathers for the Meet the Commercial Nominees event.

Meet the Nominees: Commericals

56th Annual DGA Awards
The battle for America's leisure time, according to a recent story in The Wall Street Journal, has reached the deepest recesses of American life: our televisions. Families that once parked in front of one screen for 19 hours per week now watch less than 15 hours of broadcast television by their lonesome. Entertainment options like cable and satellite feeds, video games, internet, radio, newspapers and DVDs, have brought the fight to the advertisers who paid a record $2.3 million to air a one-minute spot during this year's Super Bowl. In the tight-knit commercial industry, both sponsors and agencies are in accord: with a mere 30 or 60 seconds to make a stand, you can't mess around.

This year's nominees for the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Commercials — Lance Acord, David Fincher, Errol Morris, Noam Murro and Joe Pytka — clearly don't mess around. To say this stellar group of filmmakers brings a broad range of experience to directing commercials is, in advertising terms, a real "soft sell." Lance Acord is one of the most respected cinematographers in indie film. His most recent cinematography credit, Lost in Translation, was nominated for four Academy Awards. David Fincher's groundbreaking work as a feature director on films like Se7en, Fight Club and Panic Room have made him one of the most original stylists in cinema. In addition to his Commercial Direction nomination, Errol Morris' path as a documentarian earned him a DGA Award nomination this year for The Fog of War, while 2003 marks Joe Pytka's 14th nomination (the award has only been around since 1986). Noam Murro, who is about to direct the sequel to last year's box-office thriller, The Ring, continues his hot streak with his second consecutive nomination in as many years.

DGA Fifth Vice President Betty Thomas and Baker Smith (the 2002 DGA Commercial Directing Award winner), were on hand to host a "Meet the Nominees" evening for commercial directors at the Guild. The event gave Guild members the chance to see all the nominated spots in an informal setting and, more importantly, network heavily with agency reps, producers and fellow directors. The relaxed atmosphere, which included an after-party in the Guild atrium, allowed guests to meet these extraordinary nominees and find out why time is, almost magically so, always on their side in the short-form world of commercials.
"It's been very satisfying for me to direct commercials because it allows me to see the fruits of my labor," Lance Acord noted from his Park Pictures office a few hours before the event kicked off. "As a DP I'll shoot loads of film, but beyond supervising the dailies I never really see my work until it's been edited and finished by someone else." Acord called the approval process between agency and client "extensive," and noted that by the time his work as a DP made it to television, it was diluted beyond his own recognition. "I'd say the most rewarding aspect of my transition to directing is guiding everything on through to the editing process," he said. "When I'm shooting a feature, I'm obsessing over composition, lighting, how the actors moved through the frame, etc., and I can't be 100% in touch with performance. With a commercial, I can do all those things, and concentrate on the actors' nuances because of the limited amount of dialogue and shorter time frame."

One of Acord's nominated spots, "Wake Up Call" (Adidas), impressed guests as a triumph of athletic choreography. Scores of Chinese female players juggled soccer balls in drills as their American counterparts looked on. The spot was made through a European agency, 180 Communications. Acord said that it's more customary in Europe for directors to oversee their own cuts before the client or agency effect changes. He described U.S. agencies as "not as familiar with European methods" and guilty of squeezing the director out of the finishing process. "They feel they need to put their own stamp of responsibility on it to please the clients," Acord explained. "Out of respect for the process, not to mention turning out a great final product, directors should at least have their cuts presented to clients. If they want to make changes from there, so be it."

A one-time distance runner, Acord's spot, "Cross-Country Spirit" (Nike), featured a pack of cheerleaders racing after a distance runner on the trail as if it were the sidelines of a big football game. The spot poked fun at Acord's own experiences as a runner, and helped to ground his contention that directing commercials is like running a sprint, while shooting features is like slogging through a marathon. "Every decision you make on a feature is a compound one and will affect decisions you make months down the line. The limitations of commercials force you to distill your storytelling down to its essence in days and, ultimately, seconds. It's challenging to know that on a commercial my directing choices are final: You don't have the luxury of re-shoots unless it's that rare case of a technical disaster."

Noam Murro, who hails from Israel, said that to be honored with nominations by your peers two years in a row is "as good as it gets in our little world." Much of that world packed into the Guild's Theater 2 to see Murro's "Birthday" spot (Got Milk?). This masterpiece of short filmmaking featured a prescient adolescent, ala The Sixth Sense, headed to a birthday party with his skeptical father. Murro's character development and cinematic attention to story drew rave reviews from the audience. Industry bible Adweek had already named Murro Director of the Year for 2003, and when the easy-going filmmaker emerged from the theater, well-wishers and admirers swamped him.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time," Murro said, "commercials are simply assignments. They come with a pre-conceived notion of what a commercial should be, and the director must work within a certain box to fulfill the client and agency's vision. But ninety-nine percent of the time that box is wide open to creative and visual interpretation. Within that big box, I've been able to find my voice and vision as a director."

Murro echoed Acord in that he also would like to see commercial directors have a larger say in the post-production process. "It is the ultimate anomaly that the filmmakers who create these spots aren't the final sculptors," Murro said. "But I think that trend is changing. The structure used to be that you'd hand off the film and not even see it again until it aired. But, slowly, they are allowing the director and editor more of a voice in shaping the work in post."

The range of tone in three of Murro's nominated spots went from the cinematic ("Birthday" — Got Milk?) to the poetic ("Beautiful" — Saturn) to the hilariously comedic ("Mr. Way Too Much Cologne Wearer" — Bud Light). He cited character, story and performance as his main concerns during production. "Tone is discussed beforehand," Murro said. "I work closely with the cinematographer on composition, framing, lighting, etc. But I don't have the skills to shoot and direct my own spots as some guys do. I'd say performance and structure are my prime motivations on the set, with the DP covering the overall look as per our earlier discussions."

In the commercial industry, and even among the nominees, a debate rages as to what kind of storytelling (if they are stories at all) these 30 and 60 second works present. "I call the commercial form American Haiku," Errol Morris said from his office in New York City.

Morris said his commercials, particularly the spots for the long-running Miller High-Life campaign that were done with the same production and creative team for the last seven years, have provided some of the most satisfying work of his career. "It's not an either/or question with regards to story," Morris noted. "Some commercials are a form of storytelling and some are simply eye candy. We can argue over what constitutes a story, but what makes commercials so challenging is trying to create some type of storytelling in 60 or 30 seconds. Eye-candy commercials don't interest me, and I would make the case they're less effective. What draws people in to a 30 or 60 second spot, or a 100 minute movie, is a storyline: Something they can identify with that has meaning."

Morris has enjoyed a rare double nomination this year when you add in his feature documentary, The Fog of War. He chuckled when ruminating over the different audiences his work has served. "There are many people who know my documentaries who have no idea I direct commercials, and vice-versa," Morris said. "For example, someone came up to me in L.A. recently and said: 'I really, really admire your work. Those Miller High-Life commercials are fantastic!' "

Better than any other nominee, Morris knows the element of control varies drastically from commercials to documentaries. He described "creative control" in commercials as ultimately resting with the agency and the client, although in recent years, Morris has been a key part of editing the spots he's directed. "So much of what I do in post is bound up with what I do as a director, that I have trouble separating the two," Morris noted. "It would be utterly ridiculous for me to make a documentary and just send it off to editorial." Given all the creative voices a director must please, Morris likened the commercial process to running a race "with cinder blocks tied to your legs." "But I don't believe in a director's cut so much as in good advertising," he added. "A cut that answers only to the filmmaker's favorite shots or interests, rather than the agency's or client's goals, doesn't serve the commercial. I believe you can do good work and still respect all the different interests involved in the process."

Doing great work, while still pleasing a wide variety of advertisers and consumers describes Joe Pytka's work as a commercial director. In a career spanning more than 5,000 spots, three DGA Awards, 14 DGA nominations, and campaigns as indelible as a frying egg to represent "This Is Your Brain on Drugs" to Woody Allen skating in Rockefeller Center for the N.Y.C. Miracle spots post 9/11, Pytka is versatility incarnate in the short-form medium.

For his three nominated spots, Pytka experienced levels of problem solving that tested completely different aspects of filmmaking talents. "For the Gatorade spot," Pytka explained, "we had to re-create a person digitally — in this case a younger version of Michael Jordan — which to my knowledge hadn't been done before. Digital Domain was the only post-house, literally in the world, with the capability to do it. I was given complete freedom to shoot Michael in all different setups, and with various body doubles, which then went through digital enhancement so real, you cannot see any of the processes at work."

For his Prodigy commercial for IBM, Pytka bleached and cut the hair of an Icelandic boy and placed him in a stark-white limbo environment inspired by Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. As the blond lad stares blankly at the camera, individuals from Muhammad Ali to John Wooden sit directly in front of him to impart their knowledge. It's a powerful, haunting piece and unlike any of Pytka's two other nominated spots. "There are observers that look down from a platform and watch the boy in the Prodigy spot," Pytka noted, "and the agency wanted me to show them. I told them we needed to keep them as off-stage voices to preserve the mystery. For the 'Shakespeare' spot (Nextel), the biggest challenge was simply casting. The actors I cast out of England were disappointing, so everyone except for Romeo was cast here."

Pytka began his career making documentaries in the late '60s and early '70s. He became frustrated with the lack of control over content and production and moved into commercials, where he quickly realized that many assignments pushed him into areas he never would have explored on his own in a documentary. "Commercials have an inventiveness that surpasses any other form," Pytka noted. "I've done two movies and they were both terrible experiences because the level of interference by the studio and my lack of control in the process combined to make the work feel like a factory. Commercials expand and test your abilities every time."

The director noted that although today's spots have taken on a more "generic feel," historically the filmmakers with the strongest and most unique visions enjoy the most control. "Ridley Scott, who along with Alan Parker and Adrian Lyne changed the way commercials looked in the 1970s, made a film called Alien that is still influencing our culture 20 years later," Pytka noted. "People come to a commercial director to bring a vision to their material. The clients are part of the process insofar as it is their conception. But once it's turned over to me, I become the protector of that concept, with the most experience and knowledge to get it done."

While concepts for spots can kick around for years, the time frame from boarding to a broadcast-ready cut is often a few weeks or months, an incredibly speedy process when millions of dollars are on the line. Joe Pytka says the current pressures on advertisers, and consequently directors, to "hit a home run every time out" are stronger than he's ever seen, mainly due to the amounts of money involved and the unstable nature of so many global economies. Quirkiness in character is less valued than before as clients aim for a risk-free approach to snare the consumer's attention. Still, despite the changes in the industry, directors love commercials because as Errol Morris noted, "they can be so many things at once, and still satisfy the client's need to sell products.

"I never understood the debate about whether commercials tell a story," Murro concluded. "There are good commercials and there are bad commercials. Just like a film, good commercials will trigger an impression; a set of feelings that last beyond the 30 or 60 seconds the director was given to perfect his craft. Bad commercials simply look good and don't provoke any impressions at all. Terrible commercials don't even look good. I'm not trying to compare The Conformist to a Saturn commercial, but at the same time I can't be apologetic about this medium. It's extremely challenging and capable of really wonderful cinema.