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The Shoot Collection
Here is a collection of commercial industry stories that I wrote for the trade publication SHOOT.
Friday June 2, 2000
SPECIAL REPORT: NEW YORK PRODUCTION_ New York, New York: A look at production in the Big Apple.
Call it an "only in New York" kind of story. Hurricane Floyd was set to hit the city the same day director Nick Cassavetes of Creative Film Management (CFM), New York, was going to shoot a campaign called "Confessions" for The Travel Channel in Central Park. The spots, out of M&C Saatchi, New York, featured various characters talking about their obsessive shopping for items they dont need in order to get airline miles.
A hurricane about to ruin a shoot? Should they reschedule? Lou Addesso, president/founder of CFM, says his people are New Yorkers through-and-through: unfazed, unflappable, and thoroughly professional. With the threat of the storm, Cassavetes and his crew turned on a dime and found new indoor locations. They even managed to keep one outdoor shot: a woman standing in Central Park under a bright blue umbrella, the sky dark and threatening.
"It was fabulous," recalls Addesso. "We had the run of city because everyone was leaving because of the hurricane. We changed most of the locationsathe one in the park was ominous-looking and beautiful. Because of the depth of talent in the New York crews, they made the transition so natural. It was seamless."
Addessos "can do" attitude is typical of the city that never sleeps and may help explain why film and television production in the area is up. For five of the past six years, the Mayors Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting reports that TV and film production in New York City has reached historic levels, the high water mark being 98. However, 99 is just slightly off from that record previous year. Direct expenditures on location shootingathe city breaks down expenditures based on permits issuedaran steady in 99 with $2.52 billion compared to $2.56 billion in 98. That makes 99 the second highest year of the record-breaking six-year run from 94 through 99. In a breakdown of costs from 99, commercials accounted for some $337 million of the $2.52 billion total. Although the overall tally for production was down slightly in 99, the city experienced record growth in television, leading with 13 prime-time series being produced, which accounted for $1.29 billion in '99, compared to $1.24 billion in 98.
A number of commercial production houses say that their work contributes to the bottom line of production in New York. Barbara Gold, executive producer of Five Union Square Productions, New York, reports that "this year, seventy-five percent of our work has been in New York." That includes several ads for Geico Insurance, such as "Airlift" and "Mystery Customer," directed by Tom Schiller via The Martin Agency, Richmond, Va.
"Twenty to thirty percent of work we did in the last year was shot in New York City," says Charlie Curran, an executive producer at Crossroads Films, X-Ray Production and X-1 Films, all bicoastal and Chicago. "Its usually location stuff." Recent New York work from director Russell Bates of X-Ray includes Keyspan Energys "Coffee Shop" and "Taxi" out of Earle Palmer Brown, New York. And Bruce Hurwit of Crossroads helmed "Train" for Dunkin Donuts via Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulous, Boston.
Friday, Feb. 18, 2000
SPECIAL REPORT: MUSIC & SOUND DESIGN - The top three tracks prove that sometimes all you need is music.
For SHOOT's Winter Top 10 spot tracks, the top three spots all have one striking characteristic in common: they contain almost no dialogue and are driven mostly by their soundtracks. The Web site eTour, that connects users with sites of interest, used the image of a plane driving through suburbia in "Aviation." The score for the ad is an industrial piece that propels the action, and according to Kevin Roddy, a creative director at Fallon McElligott, New York, it was necessary for the spot to have a strong score. "We felt the music needed to have a driving beat, sort of mechanical," explains Roddy. "It's a plane and we wanted the music to reflect that."
IBM's "Supermarket" is accompanied by a playfully sinister piece of techno music, which is underscored by subtle sound design. The spot depicts a man who is presumably shoplifting. The agency and the music house worked on the track for four weeks, experimenting with several styles of music before eventually going with the techno composition. "Shoplifting can look like you're having a good time, or else it can be dark and sinister-we wanted to skew it more to the fun side," explains Brian Banks, the composer for the spot.
CNET's "Dance" features a rather awkward couple dancing together to illustrate how CNET. com helps consumers find the right technology products. The spot is backed by a basic and ethereal tune, something the agency felt was necessary for the spot's success. "We wanted something really, really simple, especially for television, where you see all the ads for dot com companies and they all try so hard to see who can outdo the next company," explains Leagas Delaney copywriter Matt Elhardt. Following is a look at how the music and sound design for the top three was created.
Friday, Feb. 11, 2000
SPECIAL REPORT: TEXAS PRODUCTION & POST: Moving In - Texas cos. have a few new neighborsnand not just geographically. When creating commercials, more and more out-of-town production companies are finding the Lone Star State is the place to be. In recent months, that notion has led to the formation of alliances between out-of-state production houses and homegrown, Texas-based shops for a variety of reasons, including a desire to increase one's presence in the Texas agency market, as well as to expand production options.
In one deal, bicoastal Atherton entered into a reciprocal agreement with Concrete Productions, Dallas. In another, New York-based Washington Square Films formed a relationship with Directorz (formerly Bednarz Films), Dallas. Per the latter arrangement, Washington Square directors Jeff Feuerzeig and Peter Sillen are represented in the Southwest by Directorz.
Texas has long attracted production companies from other areas. Mark Androw, executive producer of the Story family of companies-New York Story, Chicago Story, L.A. Story and Texas Story-has had a base of operations in Texas since '92. When Androw started Chicago Story, the first of his companies, in '89, the idea was to offer, in his words, "national quality directors for local production, with local production support." In '93, Androw branched out with New York Story, and followed with L.A. Story in '95.
Harvest, which was started by director Baker Smith and executive producer Bonnie Goldfarb in March 2001, made an impressive showing on the awards circuit this year. The company's winning package was a three-spot campaign for FOX Sports out of TBWA/Chiat/Day, San Francisco, comprising the ads "Nail Gun," "Boat" and "Leaf Blower." The commercials, which show what happens to items haphazardly assembled during the baseball playoffs, earned honors at the Cannes International Advertising Festival, the AICP Show, the Clios, The One Show, the British Design & Art Direction (D&AD) Awards and the ANDYs.
Goldfarb believes that Harvest's impressive showing is a result of the Santa Monica-based company's small size. In addition to Smith, Harvest represents directors CJ Waldman and Frank Samuel. "We are very conservative in the way we manage our money," explains Goldfarb. "We have set up a business model in which we have very low overhead. We don't have offices in London, New York, or Paris. Larger companies have a large payroll, which is dependent on gross numbers. And satellites tend to fragment the brand.
"We are not in business to manage an overwhelming and unwieldy infrastructure of masses of staff employees," Goldfarb continues. "We have purposefully designed our offices to house a kitchen where everyone meets for lunch, music is constantly flowing through speakers throughout the building, and yoga is offered twice a week at no charge to staff or freelancers. This atmosphere has allowed not only our directors but also our agency and client friends to feel relaxed and welcome."
Besides size, flexibility is a crucial in Harvest's success. "You have to be flexible as a company, to give and take with each and every board that comes in," she says. "You have to be able to read [the requirements of] the boards, to read the client, to read the agency, and to know how to produce the commercial. That's a reflection of the times: prep is shorter and you have to be cognizant of how you're scheduling your directors. That's how we got FOX Sports. Besides the financial and artistic considerations, we were able to accommodate the client on the schedule."
HSI Productions has grown dramatically since it opened its doors over 16 years ago—from a one-director shop to a an operation with 20 directors (of commercials, music videos, features, and other projects) and over 60 employees—but one thing that hasn't changed is the company's concern for quality and diversity.
On the quality front, the bicoastal company had a strong showing at this year's awards shows. Nike's "Freestyle," directed by Paul Hunter via Wieden+Kennedy, Portland, Ore., scored honors at the AICP Show and the Clios. Gerard de Thame, who directs via HSI and Gerard de Thame Films, London, earned honors at the AICP Show for Mercedes-Benz's "Modern Ark," out of Merkley Newman Harty|Partners, New York; additionally, Aquafina's "Summer Heat," directed by Irv Blitz, also scored well at the AICP Show.
The key to such quality, explains company founder/president Stavros Merjos, is diversity. In addition to working on commercials, music videos, graphics, and features, HSI has a new print division (in association with Smashbox) called Mercury Artist Group. In July 2002, HSI signed a two-year, first-look pact with New Line Cinema, and two months ago, it opened Exposure, a music video and commercial company based in London.
"Diversity makes us stronger," Merjos says, noting that HSI draws in new clients who want multitalented directors. He cites the versatility of his helmers as a selling point, since they are as at home shooting commercials as they are at crafting original concepts, a common practice in the music video world. In addition, Merjos believes the breadth of work in which HSI is involved is a corporate strength because it helps amortize costs over a range of projects so "we are not dependent on one job or one industry."
The awards are nice, Merjos adds, but it is the work—and the repeat business—that tells the tale. "Attention is good in any way you can get it," he notes, "but the best way is to have an amazing commercial. People don't give you as job just because you won an award."
Friday, Dec. 5, 2003
SPECIAL REPORT: AGENCY OF THE YEAR_ New Frontiers
Rupert Samuel, co-director of broadcast production at Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B), Miami, had never worked with Spike Jonze of bicoastal/international Morton Jankel Zander (MJZ), until Ikea's "Lamp," which began airing late last year. The collaboration was a long time coming—Samuel had sent the director many scripts, and Jonze finally agreed to one that caught his eye: "Lamp." The concept was appropriately bizarre for the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation; it featured an abandoned lamp that was meant to evoke sympathy from viewers.
Jonze and the CP+B team transformed the simple concept into an award-winning ad. The spot scored the Grand Prix at this year's Cannes International Advertising Festival, and the Grand Clio at the Clio Awards, among other accolades. "Lamp" features a mournful piano tune, which accompanies images of a woman unplugging a desk lamp, taking it out of her apartment, and leaving it downstairs on the street with the rest of her garbage. We see the lamp, desolate and alone by the garbage can, as rain begins to fall. The lamp seemingly stares at the window of its former home, where a new lamp has taken its place. Then comes the kicker: a man with a Swedish accent steps into the picture and addresses the audience: "Many of you feel bad for this lamp. That is because you [are] crazy. It has no feelings. And the new one is much better."
"Spike brought [the concept] to life, adding rain and the big city scene," recalls Samuel, who along with David Rolfe, co-head of broadcast production, oversees an 11-person production department at CP+B. According to Samuel, this sort of methodology is typical of the agency. "[CP+B] creatives often offer up a script with room for ideas to be put in," he notes. "The basic idea for 'Lamp' is you feel bad for an inanimate object. But how do you make it sing? That's where collaboration comes in."
Collaboration is the name of the game at CP+B, SHOOT's 2003 agency of the year. So is success. The agency has a long track record of producing highly creative spots, winning awards, and enticing topnotch directors, both emerging and established, with clever concepts and creative freedom. Besides Jonze, the agency production team has collaborated with Happy—a.k.a. Guy Shelmerdine and Richard Farmer—of bicoastal Smuggler, who recently directed a series of spots for the TV show Nip/Tuck on the FX Network. (Those spots were done via the Los Angeles office of CP+B; producers from the Miami home base produced for the outpost.)
StyleWar, an up-and-coming Swedish directing collective with Smuggler, has also worked with CP+B, as have spot veterans such as Bryan Buckley of bicoastal/international Hungry Man and Baker Smith of harvest, Santa Monica. Smith, the winner of this year's Directors Guild of America (DGA) Award for best commercial director, scored that honor in part on the basis of "Clown," a spot for the Mini Cooper, out of CP+B.
The agency owes its success, in large part, to the trusting give-and-take that was demonstrated in the creation of "Lamp." According to Rolfe, the agency producers and creatives pride themselves on their ability to leave their egos at the door and accept ideas from anyone. The goal is not to earn points for coming up with a concept, but to create the best possible spot.
"It felt like you weren't fighting against each other, you were together fighting something else," recalls Oskar Holmedal—one of the directors in StyleWar—about the experience of helming a new package of Ikea spots for CP+B. "It was really good. You had respect for all of their ideas and thoughts. We just threw everything in there. There was no holding onto anything for ego. It was just a search for good ideas."
Take "Clown," directed by Smith, for example. In it, a clown jumps into a Mini and squirts the driver in the eye as he's negotiating the car down a winding road. Rolfe says the spot was funny as shot, but that during the editing process, discussions with Smith, partner/executive creative director Alex Bogusky, and editor Paul Kelly of 89 Editorial, New York, led to a radical change in the spot. "Clown" was converted to black and white, grain was added, and a silent movie-style piano track was recorded.
"We wanted to push the envelope," explains Rolfe. "We wanted to make [the idea] unique. You don't see a car commercial that looks like this that often. Everybody was excited by the changes and by the final result, including the client."
"I thought that was fantastic," says Smith. "I thought the creative was great. … The producers will give you boards and then expect the director to take it to the next level, not just shoot the boards. If something comes up in the process of shooting or editing, like in 'Clown,' everyone embraces it. 'Clown' started out one way and then ended up as something completely different—and better."
Rolfe says he and his fellow producers have very specific criteria. "We maintain overall stewardship of the idea, but we want the directors to take risks," he adds. "We look to what the director wants to bring to it. I don't think anyone out there challenges directors as much as we do. They're not used to being pushed; they are used to being restrained."
"Doing a commercial is like staging a ballet in a phone booth, and [CP+B's] approach both stretches you and challenges you, which is fantastic," says Smith. "It's what we thrive on. You are limited to a certain degree in advertising. You have a certain set of rules that just can't be broken. But how can you bend them?"
Such an attitude helps build trust between the directors and the producers, which leads to better creative. "There's a tremendous amount of mutual respect here," says Sara Gennett-Lopez, who stepped down last year as head of broadcast production, and is now VP/broadcast business manager for the agency. "Everyone has respect, and that goes into the work that comes out."
The agency cultivates solid concepts by searching out new directors based on chemistry rather than previous experience in a particular ad genre. "In order to make a splash, you have to do truly fresh and unique work," observes Rolfe. "You want to keep things fresh and find new talent, to go outside the more obvious talent pool."
"Pony," an effects-driven Ikea spot produced by Rolfe, is a good example. The commercial, directed by StyleWar, who also directed "Thugs" and "Bedroom," finds a couple and a young boy lounging in a living room. A voiceover begins, "Maybe you have one hundred dollars," and the room magically transforms itself—new furniture slides into place as the family goes about their business. "Maybe you have four hundred and fifty dollars," the voiceover continues, and the room changes again. "Maybe you have one thousand four hundred dollars." Another change. "Maybe you have one million dollars." Now the room is at its most elaborate, with the woman playing a new harp, and the boy on a pony that has been added to the room. "Or maybe not," the voiceover concludes, as the room transforms back to an earlier incarnation. The tag: "Help yourself to unböring."
Rolfe says that he chose StyleWar—who was featured in the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors Show- case at Cannes this year—as director because he "wanted to work with someone with a totally different, totally unique aesthetic. [StyleWar] had not worked on the ad side, but had done music videos," Rolfe points out. "They had a unique sense of freshness, and totally lacked cynicism."
The producers' acknowledge that they are on a conscious quest for chemistry. "We look for computability between us and them," says Samuel. "We want to get along with people who love the project."
"If a reel is not full of spots similar to what you are doing, you don't simply bypass that reel," adds Rolfe. "Chemistry, understanding and unity of purpose are more important than whether he has something like it on tap."
The secret to keeping their work cutting edge, says Rolfe, is in trusting their collaborators, and never playing it safe. "Unswervingly, you have to take risks," he says. "It's almost like it has to challenge the audience. The process has to be challenging. It's always our job to bring something fresh and new. That's what the broadcast production department has to do, and what Alex has asked everyone to do from the beginning."
"Their work is all about innovation and risk-taking," says Happy's Shelmerdine. "Agencies are judged by their product. At Crispin, they just make sure they kick ass better than anyone else."