Ad directors masters of shorthand

At the sight of a prostrate elephant, a passing cyclist –none other than Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong — stops to give it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Miraculously, the behemoth is revived.

This 30-second ode to the beauty of sport and strong lungs is another example of Nike’s Just Do It campaign. It’s also just plain well done, according to the Directors Guild of America, which singled out the commercial’s director, Dante Ariola, for directorial achievement in 2000, with four other nominees.

Repeat nominees

The nomination is a first for Ariola and fellow honoree Lenard Dorfman. The others — Bryan Buckley, David Cornell and Leslie Dektor — have been recognized in the past. For Dektor, it is his 12th nom, tying him for the most in this category. Cornell and Dektor are past winners.The DGA began saluting commercial directors in 1979. The nominees are selected by an anonymous committee of commercial directors, which selects five honorees every year (expect for 1992, when three were picked) and announces the winner at the DGA’s annual awards winner (this year’s is March 10).

As a matter of policy, the DGA reveals neither how many directors are considered nor why the nominees are chosen.

The latest honorees are cited for 19 commercials in total. As a whole, says Anthony Vagnoni, creative editor for Advertising Age, their work gives an accurate picture of broader trends in the business.

“You’re either getting commercials that are pure eye candy, beautifully shot with lots of production design and visual effects seamlessly interwoven,” he says, “or you have very concept- and performance-oriented stuff, often revolving around clever use of celebrities.”

In defining their work, the nominees see themselves as a part of a stylistic continuum that mirrors larger social tendencies.

“Commercials keep changing; that’s the excitement of the business,” says Dektor, a documentary filmmaker famous in the ad world for a series of Levi’s 501 spots in the ’80s that featured what was then a groundbreaking hand-held style dubbed “shakycam.”

“They go from emotional storytelling to humor to broader humor back to emotional work,” he continues. “We went through a period of work being quite broad and funny. I think it’s softened down and it’s getting more heartfelt but still humorous.”

Buckley sees a similar cyclical pattern to the evolution of commercials, noting: “We’ve returned to the glory work of the late ’60s, early ’70s. In the middle there, we went from the 60-second format to 30 seconds. Creative directors didn’t know how to translate storytelling into 30 seconds.”

The transition was filled with “clever for clever’s sake,” explains Buckley, leading to ads like those for Nynex Yellow Pages that featured the funny double entendres of listings.

“When you look at what makes advertising interesting, at what people respond to, it’s character-driven,” he says. “It’s better to have an interesting, quirky character than an incredible virtual city and mundane people walking across it.”

Some of the commercials cited by the DGA can be categorized as eye candy, but all of the nominees demonstrate an ability to join visual style with dramatic content. More often than not, those are the commercials considered most challenging.

Dorfman uses his Senegal women’s basketball team 60-second spot he did for IBM and the 2000 Summer Olympics as an example of such a combination.

“I wanted to tell (the athlete’s) story intimately, showing her beauty through her character and athleticism,” he says. “And I wanted to translate it into a visceral kind of experience for the viewer, so they sense they are sharing a moment in time with the main character.”

Ariola says as an idea on paper, the pachyderm spot for Nike could have been treated as a gag, but that’s not what he wanted. “It’s comedic but not played for laughs.”

Two guys and a chimp

Buckley’s Super Bowl ad with a chimp for E*Trade demanded as much, if not more, work to get the right performance from the human actors. The ad depicts two guys and a chimp in a garage, clapping to a Latin beat.

“It was a great idea that was 100% open to interpretation as to how to execute it,” he says.

He opted for a look that was came across as “homespun,” as he calls it, but not as bad as homevideo, choosing actors who really couldn’t clap to the music rather than two guys with rhythm trying to be out of sync. The monkey, which may have been the most experienced of the actors, was allowed to improvise.

The tagline to these antics: “Well, we just wasted $2 million.”

“It was an anti-Super Bowl spot,” Buckley explains.

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