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Production: Commercials

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The commercial's journey through the agency is a well-defined process, much of which was established after the 1972 founding of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers. The standardization of bid and editing forms soon followed, brought about by increasing costs, a need for better understanding of the procedures and a desire by clients to monitor what their agencies were doing.

Since about 1980, little has changed in the number of processes and checkpoints required as a commercial is produced by an ad agency. First, the client gives the account team a brief, which includes an on-air deadline and the latest date at which the client needs to approve the final commercial. The account group, the planner and the creative team—creative director, copywriter and art director—then research, provide insight into and refine the concept. Next, the copywriter and art director develop ideas and craft storyboards. Once the creative director and client OK the results, the producer gets involved.

Owing to technological advances and the prevalence of global agency mergers, the producer presides over an increasingly international arena, sharing a wide array of accounts and people. While the creative team may work on two or three projects a year, the producer routinely handles 10 to 12. The producer's responsibilities include developing the agency vision, compiling a list of directors and explaining the brief to the production company and the possibilities to the client.

The producer analyzes the bid, suggests alternatives, recruits the best available talent and regulates the shoot, while also keeping an eye on the bottom line. The producer's initial task is to review about 50 sample reels of film in order to assemble a list of possible directors.

Some ad agencies require a particular area of specialization from a director. This high level of selectivity originated in the 1980s, when agencies wanted to know exactly what they were getting in a director. Soon, directors who had once done a variety of projects started to be pigeonholed under headings such as cars, tabletop, fashion, beauty, comedy or dialogue.

During most of the 1990s, MTV directors, with their highly visual styles and flashy editing techniques, dominated the market. By the beginning of the 21st century, however, one important specialty was comedy, largely propelled by the rise of dot-com companies in late 1999 and 2000. Some agencies established long-term relationships with directors. The award-winning director Joe Pytka, for example, became known as the Pepsi director.

While the production house is rarely a consideration on its own, those with a distinctive specialty sometimes have an advantage. Moreover, the best directors often have the best production companies. Usually, three to five directors are invited to bid on a job. Industry estimates put the director's average day rates in 2001 at $10,000 to $25,000.

Once the director is chosen, the producer sells the proposed job to the client. The agency creative team and the director then discuss such specifics as location, casting specifications, set design, post-production and budget. The shoot itself can take hours or days and involve a small team or as many as 50 cast and crew members, depending on rigging and whether children or animals are involved, with their attendant social workers and trainers. Athletes and celebrities come with entourages and their own trailers.

As costs began escalating in the 1970s, some agencies started their own in-house production facilities as a means of keeping control and offering a creative outlet for in-house talent. Disappointing creative results and a lack of resources, however, forced most big agencies to close or scale down in-house production toward the end of the 1980s.

In most cases, once the shoot is over, the director hands his creation over for editing, post-production and music. (In Europe, with its reputation for excellent post-production facilities, director-auteurs stay much more involved.)

Editing was revolutionized in 1992 with the invention of the Avid, a digital film-editing system that offered faster, cheaper, more versatile editing and replaced the traditional flatbed film-editing machine.

Once the rough cut is finished, it moves into post-production, which takes a fraction of the time it originally did, thanks to the introduction of computers such as the Henry and the Flame. In post-production, special effects, typography, color, sound recording and mixing, casting for voice-over, tape transfer and blowups occur.

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