Michael Bay is known for bold images in commercials and fast action in features. According to his longtime producer Scott Gardenhour, Bay’s visual style has a strong influence from an unlikely source: musicals.
Yes, the visual stylist behind the hard action of “The Rock” and the Transformers franchise studied musicals carefully during his time at Wesleyan U. and at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
“Not many people know that,” says Gardenhour, who is Bay’s partner in his commercials production company the Institute. “But I think it actually translates to a lot of what Michael does. There’s a tremendous, efficient choreography in his work that sets him apart. I find that fascinating.”
Gardenhour cites the Chevy “Car Carrier” commercial as an example. “There so much going on there, so many things happening in the frame,” he says. “The ability to have all these elements work seamlessly together is extremely rare, and I think it’s rooted in his thorough knowledge of cinema history.”
Bay’s earliest successes came at Propaganda Films, where he put his distinctive stamp on musicvideos and commercials, including a national Red Cross spot that snagged a Clio in 1992. In 1993, he brought to life the now-iconic “Got Milk?” campaign, along with creative directors Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein. Bay’s deft touch caught the eye of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who brought him into the feature realm for “Bad Boys,” which reportedly cost $19 million, then grossed $141 million.
“If you look closely at those Aaron Burr ‘Got Milk?’ spots, you see that they have a great visual style, and they have scale as well as intimacy,” says Gardenhour. “You think of it as a funny spot, but at the same time, every shot has a bigness, a scale to it. You see the shafts of light coming from above. That versatility really set Michael apart from the beginning, and helped him transition to the feature world.”
Goodby, co-chairman and creative director at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, has worked with Bay on numerous commercial campaigns, including Isuzu’s “Toy Store” spots and the “Got Milk?” ads for the California Milk Processors Board. He says Bay’s humor is actually very nuanced, pointing to the Aaron Burr ad as an example.
“When I think of Michael, I think of two things: spectacle and connection,” says Goodby. “His work always has high points of surprise and alarm that make it unforgettable.”
Ed Razek, chief marketing officer for Victoria’s Secret, says Bay’s instincts are “spectacularly commercial.”
“Last year, we were the No. 1 most recalled brand in the month of December, the most competitive month,” Razek says. “That is the result of his deep understanding of our brand identity, and his singular focus during the shoot. We shot some of those supermodels in 110-degree heat, but Michael insisted on shooting and reshooting until it was perfect.”
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