Joe Pytka - DGA Lifetime Achievement in Television Award

DGAM News Jan 2016

December 15, 2015

Director Joe Pytka will become the third recipient of the DGA’s new Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Achievement in Television Direction, which will be presented at the 68th Annual DGA Awards on Saturday, February 6, 2016 at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Los Angeles. The Award will honor Pytka’s trailblazing career as a commercial director.

“Since the debut of television, commercials have played a critical role in shaping the trajectory of the medium. And when it comes to commercials, there is no higher bar than the one set by the incomparable Joe Pytka,” said DGA President Paris Barclay when announcing the award on November 23. “So many of his over 5,000 projects – which include more than 80 Super Bowl commercials – are part of the nation’s zeitgeist, from his iconic, generation-defining Pepsi ads to Nike’s ‘Bo Knows’ and Budweiser’s ‘Clydesdales’ to the unforgettable ‘Your Brain on Drugs’ PSA. For these reasons and so many more, we’re thrilled to present this top Guild honor to Joe.”

Although his work as a director has made a definitive impact on the culture, as a child growing up in Pennsylvania, Pytka never dreamed of a career behind the camera. “I wanted to be a painter,” Pytka admits. “I was fortunate to go to a wonderful program in Pittsburgh for gifted students at the Carnegie Institute of Art and Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon) University. Pittsburgh was then completely out of the motion picture loop so no one had any aspirations of filmmaking.”

His life changed in college after a friend got him a job developing news film at a small industrial motion picture company. He soon became involved in more aspects of the process including printmaking, color timing, primitive animation, and editing. The editing skills led to the next step in his career after he formed a relationship with Pittsburgh’s flagship public broadcasting station WQED. “They asked me to go there to edit a series of documentaries they were doing,” Pytka recalls. “I said I would if they let me shoot as well. They said no since I had no experience, but luck entered into the equation. The director of those documentaries was filming another project and he had run over budget and time. He asked if I could film a sequence for him at night. I was familiar with the camera and I was familiar with light meter from the animation I had done, so… I got lucky. He liked the work and I moved over to WQED as a cameraman/editor and eventually directed documentaries there.”

Once established as a director, Pytka eventually started an independent company with a fellow WQED employee in order to gain more control over his work. They made documentaries and he got his first exposure to the craft of commercial filmmaking making advertising spots for a local brewery. The company’s success would eventually lead him to the DGA. “One of our documentaries won a big award in a New York show and got us some exposure. But we found that we weren’t equipped to work in New York because of union constraints that we were never aware of. I learned about the Directors Guild and wondered whether my work qualified me for membership. It did, and I joined, ecstatic.”

After joining the Guild in 1969, Pytka would go on to build a career as the creator of some of the world’s most memorable television commercials. He has earned every award and nomination ever conceived for such endeavors including three DGA Commercial Direction Awards and 14 nominations — the most for that category – and a CLIO Lifetime Achievement Award. He is the only director to be awarded the Cannes Lion of St. Marks, and admitted into the prestigious The One Club, which recognizes excellence in advertising. His John Hancock Insurance commercials – which earned him a Cannes Grand Prix – were called breakthrough emotional advertising by judge and legendary advertising executive Stephen Frankfurt. Of those honors – and especially the DGA Awards – he says he’s both flattered and humbled. “There is no better feeling than to be recognized and honored by your peers.”

Over the past three decades, Pytka’s masterful storytelling and stylized images have crossed over into the collective consciousness. He has directed more than 80 Super Bowl ads—seven winning the USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter—the most famous of which feature the iconic Budweiser Clydesdales. He also directed Pepsi’s legendary “Make a Wish” spot featuring Madonna which blended pop culture, music and controversy – it was the first-ever commercial to have a special global satellite premiere, and was seen by an estimated 250 million people worldwide. His commercials have featured such A-list athletes and celebrities as The Beatles, Madonna, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Tom Hanks, George C. Scott, Marlon Brando, Wayne Gretzky, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and President Obama, among many others. These spots represent top brands including UPS, State Farm, McDonald’s, Hallmark, IBM, Gatorade, Johnson & Johnson, NFL, American Express, and many more. Also on his resume are two feature films: the screwball comedy Let It Ride (1989), and the cult classic half-animation/half-live action sports comedy Space Jam (1996) – the first film to use digital ink and paint – which was inspired by his Nike ad “Hare Jordan” featuring Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan and McDonald’s “Nothing But Net” with Jordan and Larry Bird.

Pytka has also directed music videos including The Beatles’ “Free as a Bird,” as well as “Dirty Diana,” “Heal the World,” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” for Michael Jackson. More than 50 of his works are in the permanent collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art. In 2003, he was awarded the DGA Honor for his distinguished contributions to the art and craft of commercials as well as his post-9/11 “New York City Miracle” spots featuring such iconic images as Woody Allen skating, Henry Kissinger sliding into home plate, and Yogi Berra conducting the New York Philharmonic.

Asked what keeps him interested in directing after all these years, Pytka’s answer is simple: “Love. There is nothing better than to take an idea and make something tangible from it. The process is wonderful and challenging. It involves a great many processes – acting, cinematography, editing, music, and the challenge to apply all of this successfully is like no other form. The impact on an audience transcends all other forms, better than looking at a painting, or going to a concert.”

Despite all the accolades he has earned over the years, for Pytka, the recognition of DGA’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Achievement in Television Direction leaves him thunderstruck. “I am shocked and dumbfounded. All I’ve ever tried to do is my job. Being able to be in this special profession and a member of the Guild is reward enough. The ability and charge to bring some thoughtfulness, maybe some joy and laughter, and an important message to so many people is a great responsibility and challenge. I’ve been extremely lucky in finding many like-minded people on both sides of the camera that helped me along the way. I’ve had a great creative life, better than perhaps any. Getting a recognition like this from this peerless organization is beyond measure. I know there are many, many others more deserving. I know that and I’m sorry, but I’ll keep it.”

Joe Pytka portrait by Joachim Ladefoged

The DGA Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Achievement in Television Direction was created by the Board of Directors in 2015, joining the Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Achievement in Motion Picture Direction as the two highest honors bestowed by the DGA. Winners are nominated by a blue ribbon committee of prominent television directors and approved by the present and past presidents of the Guild. Television-directing icons James Burrows and Robert Butler received the inaugural honor.