Commercial production is estimated to be more than a billion-dollar-a-year business in the U.S., although neither the American Assn. of Advertising Agencies nor the Assn. of Independent Commercial Producers has compiled exact figures.
Despite a rich history as a testing ground for new ideas and techniques, and despite the contributions of many of today’s most talented film and video artists, commercials often remain the neglected siblings within the production and post industries.
For instance, when excellence in the production and post crafts is discussed, the conversation tends to focus on feature films, occasionally touching on the television and musicvideo industries.
Often overlooked are the producers, directors, editors, cinematographers, special-effects artists, costumers and others who put their stamp on some very innovative 30- and 60-second spots.
John Bailey, a noted feature cinematographer whose credits include “In the Line of Fire” and “Groundhog Day,” began his career in commercials, and continues to work in that medium as both a director and cameraman through Los Angeles-based Brownstone Prods.
When Bailey started working as a camera assistant on spots in the late ’60s, creative innovations generally made their way into other media via commercials.
“That was a moribund time in American filmmaking,” he recalls, “but a lot of the techniques generated in the New York advertising industry — which was strongly influenced by the French New Wave — started to have an effect on television.”
Bailey says that creativity runs in both directions. In recent years narrative techniques from feature films have “reinvigorated commercials,” adds Bailey. “On the other side, post-production methods developed or perfected in commercials have made an impact on feature films.”
Electronic non-linear editing, for instance, has become standard in the commercial world.
As electronic editing becomes familiar to more editors and directors — many of whom, like Bailey, work in both commercials and features — systems such as the Avid editing systems are increasingly used for big-screen projects. It’s not just equipment that is first put to the test in commercials.
Elaborate creative techniques,too, have made their way successfully from commercials piped into viewers’ living rooms to the nation’s multiplexes.
Jamie Dixon, visual-effects supervisor at Pacific Data Images in Los Angeles, says the company developed morphing techniques seen in a Chrysler minivan spot “a good six months” before the release of the film “Terminator 2” with its much-vaunted morph sequences.
The reason such techniques can be pioneered for small-screen advertising, says director Chris Gilligan of New York’s Curious Pictures, is simple: Budgets permit it.
Gilligan, who specializes in animation, says that techniques like stop-motion or clay painting on glass are naturals for use in commercials.
Because a high-profile advertiser might have up to a million dollars to spend on a 30-second spot — as opposed to feature filmmakers a few having millions to spend on a two-hour film — animators such as Gilligan are able to experiment.
“We can push techniques further than they’ve been pushed — we have the unique opportunity to expand on ideas. When a client comes to us wanting something new and different, we can either reach into the grab bag of existing ideas, or we can come up with something completely fresh,” he says.
While Gilligan points to Coca-Cola’s well-known “Polar Bears” spot as an example of a big budget allowing for big creativity, agency producer Sybil McCarthy of Ketchum Advertising in L.A. says most clients are looking at the bottom line ever more carefully.
“There are certainly still those clients you can try out new things with,” says McCarthy. “I just finished two big special-effects jobs for Acura that included a lot of compositing, but there’s always a certain pressure to investigate all the ways to execute an idea.
“That bodes well for new creative talent,” adds McCarthy, “because agencies are looking for fresh perspective and vision, especially in the area of directing.
“Sure, there’s Joe Pytka and Bob Giraldi and Peter Smillie,” says McCarthy, referring to industry directors, “but now agencies want to know who else is out there. Is there someone there who looks at things with a certain edge, who’s got a vision that’s other than the classic cinematic look?”
Mindy Goldberg, executive producer Epoch Films, says staying up-to-the-minute with changing technologies isn’t a pressing need. Epoch’s recent credits include an Obsession campaign produced for Calvin Klein in-house, and a Nike spot for Wieden and Kennedy. Goldberg admits, however, that for the few technical matters she does consider important, it’s easier to educate herself on the West Coast.
“It’s harder to keep up in New York, because a lot of technologies are developed in L.A., and they’re much more readily available there,” says Goldberg. “So when I make trips to L.A., I always visit post-production facilities and digital-effects houses.”
Although there’s a great deal of commercial production business in Los Angeles putting dollars into a local economy that sorely needs them, Michael Romersa, president of Partners/USA Group, acknowledges that overall, the commercial industry isn’t the only game in town for many production houses.
This leads to more the cross-fertilization cited by Bailey. “Diversification is the key to maintaining a healthy business,” says Romersa, pointing out that Partners’ directors tend to cross over between episodic television and commercials. Partners has established an alliance with Bedford Falls, the company behind the hit TV show “thirtysomething” and an upcoming series, “My So-Called Life.”
New media, too, Romersa believes, must be taken seriously by commercial production companies. “Advertising, as we know it now, is changing,” says Romersa. “I don’t think very many people know how, but they definitely agree that it is. Interactive and multimedia are definitely areas we need to get involved in, but nobody really knows exactly how to go about it.”
Bill Perna, executive producer at Smillie Films in Santa Monica and New York, serves as president of the Assn. of Independent Commercial Producers. He agrees with Romersa’s assessment that the commercial marketplace is changing.
The Los Angeles market, he says, “has had a bit of a downturn, but it remains strong for the reasons it’s always been strong: It’s still the center of the production business, and the infrastructure is there. All the support is there.”
That infrastructure, says Romersa, is another element that allows for expanded creative opportunities within the L.A. commercial industry.
“There are some great traditional filmmakers,” says Ro-mersa. “And storytellers will always have a place in our industry. But there seems to be an outgrowth from the MTV generation that sees things differently. They’ve created some stunning and provocative visuals.
“It’s interesting that 15 years ago, we’d have had to reshoot half the stuff that is winning awards today,” adds Romersa. “Back then, film that was overexposed or grainy or had shaky camera work would have been unacceptable. But today, there’s no end to the techniques and creativity that are being developed in commercials.”