Semerad studied illustration at Pratt Institute in the early 1980s. Not that he knew what he'd gotten himself into. "In 10th grade, my art teacher [in Schenectady, N.Y.] was telling me I could become a professional artist, but she was the only professional artist I had ever met. I had no idea what that was."
While Semerad's fellow Pratt grads were soon "getting coffee and picking up laundry" for painters, he stumbled into a job at post house Charlex, which was "so busy, they would have hired anybody who came in the door," Semerad claims modestly.
"I remember one time I was [freelance illustrating] a Father's Day card for American Greetings, and I was also at Charlex working on a music video for the Police with Godley and Creme. And I thought, One of these careers seems to be moving along faster than the other." So he stuck with video.
In 1995, after discovering and mastering the Flame, Semerad launched Quiet Man, with just one other person on board, executive director Amy Taylor. He named the company after his wife's description of him -- "a quiet guy with a computer." Then again, if he'd known the business would grow so fast, Semerad says he would have picked another name. "Quiet Man is really not Johnnie Semerad," he says. "There's 20 guys here now, and the reason we're doing so much good work is those guys are pulling a lot of weight."
The remark about doing good work is no idle boast. Quiet Man's list of recent awards represents major advertisers such as HBO, Pepsi and Purina Maxx. After the 1998 American Advertising Awards, Quiet Man lugged home eight prizes; and at the Houston International Film Festival last year, the house claimed two more awards.
But Quiet Man came to prime-time attention when the Joe Pytka-directed "Chimps" commercial for HBO earned a 1997 Emmy for the year's Best Television Commercial. The simians recite famous lines from films they've seen on HBO, while noted anthropologist Jane Goodall puzzles over their behavior. Why did it become such a popular spot? "I think it's the humanity of the characters," Semerad says. "People who identified with Marlon Brando or Sylvester Stallone identified with those chimps."
He is pleased that his line of work is garnering more respect from agencies. "It used to be traditionally, the director would shoot it, they would cut, then they would move it on down the line. But now, on the big effects jobs, the effects house is often the first party to get [involved in] the job."
State-of-the-art technology is only a minor part of the Quiet Man draw. "Most people come to us for a look, a design, an aesthetic feel to the piece," Semerad believes. Quiet Man's work ranges from the studly rooster-about-town bopping and strutting to the Miracles' "Love Machine," in a Denny's spot, to the goldfish who's persuaded to stop playing dead by a drop of Pepsi. Along with the chimps, that's not a bad animal menagerie, but there's more: an upcoming spot for Budget Rent-a-Car features a bear who upchucks. "I've made just about everything talk, but that was the first time I made an animal throw up," Semerad grins.
One of Quiet Man's first big jobs -- and the one Semerad still points to as the work he's most proud of -- was helping create effects on the Beatles' "Free as a Bird" video, also directed by Pytka. It shows, among other feats of visual wizardry, old Fab Four footage superimposed on more recently filmed street scenes. "Maybe someday I'll think I did something better, but that kind of put us on the map. And it's still a real special piece," says Semerad.
Although his idol is George Lucas, and Quiet Man has done a few pieces for music videos and videogames, commercials are job one. Semerad says the constant change appeals. "The good and bad of it when you do commercials, it changes. Take the guy who animated Jabba the Hutt for Star Wars. It took him a year. How do you show up for work after the third month of that? For me, it constantly changes. There's new stuff every week, even every day."
Besides, from a more practical standpoint, Semerad knows how to work the home-field advantage. "We're in New York City, and if you're here, you do commercials . . . The only film work in New York is when people come to you with independent movies and say, 'We don't have any money. Would you like to back the movie?' "
For some reason, spending money on jobs isn't as appealing as making money on them. But making dough seems to be less of a priority these days than when the company was operating hand-to-mouth. "Professionally, we just want to do good jobs. We're kind of there now," muses Semerad. "We can pretty much take a job not because we have to pay the bills, but because we want to do it and are