Director Steve Beck awaits with fear and trepidation the next rage of animals to swarm into advertising. As a guy who's done two funny penguin spots and a pigeon commercial, he'll probably get the first call should aardvarks, porcupines or platypuses suddenly become hot.
Don't laugh. Consider the recent feature film performances of the elephant in George of the Jungle or the maladjusted star of Mouse Hunt and it's a safe bet that more CG or animatronic critters are on the way. Beck, however, has moved on to other life forms. "I've done enough fowl spots," he laughs. "I think I've graduated to the four-legged kingdom, or just the two-legged [human] one."
Not that he can't do animal spots with the best of 'em. Take Fallon McElligott's BMW spot, featuring a penguin that keeps slipping on the ice until it hops into a beemer with traction control. Or the Canada Dry spot from FCB/Chicago in which a long line of penguins falls domino-style to form the Canada Dry logo. Most famously, Beck directed Nissan's stunning "Pigeons" for TBWA Chiat/Day, which left its mark on last year's Super Bowl. All have added a welcome measure of warmth and charm to Beck's reel. After all, the guy can be mistaken for a technophile, given that he's with Industrial Light & Magic. And to be sure, Beck is no stranger to spots with a high-technology sheen.
There's the current Shell gasoline campaign from O&M/Houston, for example. In one spot, a sports car driving down a city street gets refueled by a stealth fighter. It could easily be titled "Tomorrow Never Runs Out of Gas," with its Bond-style gizmos, action-flick score and frantic pace. Beck admits that spots like that run the risk of obscuring the message with the execution, and worries that in some cases, creatives can get a little carried away with the ability of effects technology to do just about anything. "The interesting aspect for the director here is to make sure it's fun to watch," he says.
These days, the 39-year-old Beck is emerging as the go-to guy at ILM's commercials division, the director who has the studio's most visible commercials on his reel. He had two spots on the Super Bowl this year -- comedy for Primestar via Adler Boschetto Peebles, and a Pontiac spot from DMB&B/Detroit that stars Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner.
A 1981 advertising illustration graduate of Art Center, he fully expected to become an illustrator when he got out of school, "but I kept bumping into everybody in the lobbies of the same magazines and design studios, everyone looking for the same work." Instead he ended up at a motion graphics animation company, where he learned the basics of film production, then gradually started directing at Robert Abel & Associates, a visual effects company that closed shop in 1986. Beck then spent two years freelancing in Los Angeles and working as a producer for the Jacobs & Gerber ad agency. In 1988 he got a call from ILM to come and revamp its art department. In those days, says Beck, the unit consisted "of one guy sitting at a desk in a back office on the fourth floor."
He spent several years building the department, during which time he worked on The Abyss and The Hunt for Red October, among other features. By 1992 Beck was ready to start directing again. His first job was a Merrill Lynch spot for Bozell; in it, a bull maneuvers around on the girders of a gigantic building under construction, symbolizing the perilous framework of a global economy. That was then; now the director's focus is on moving into the kinds of commercial assignments that are not so effects-driven and that have more of a, dare we say, human story to them. A nice example of this is a campaign from GSD&M for the Steel Alliance, an industry initiative that promotes recycling. One of the spots features a little old lady who shuffles to the curb to set out her recycling bin; as she heads back to her house, a junked car falls from the sky and flattens -- no, not the doddering old dear, thank heavens, but the bin.
Says Kevin Townsend, executive producer of ILM's commercial division, "Steve is going through a bit of an identity crisis -- people know his work, they just don't know it's his." Townsend says the ILM folks are looking at '98 as being Beck's breakout year; for that to happen, however, they have to get agencies to widen their perceptions of him.
Some of his clients already know about his versatility. Joe Hemp, an art director/ACD at TBWA Chiat/Day who has done two spots with Beck, says the director is "a real right brain/left brain combination. He's not just a technician -- he's a great director with all this technical support." Adds Jay Suhr, O&M's creative director on the Shell campaign, "We felt Steve was one of a handful of guys who could bring a real cinematic quality to the shots, and we knew the effects would look seamless."
Beck enjoys being surrounded by top craftspeople, but he wonders whether he'll ever "grow up out of the genre" of effects directing. The response to Titanic gives him much to be encouraged about. For all its pre-release hype as the effects film of the year, what people are talking about is the story. "What James Cameron was able to do was pull the human spirit into it," Beck marvels, "and that has nothing to do with effects, and everything to do with the storyteller's ability to poke you in the soul."
Not surprisingly, Beck is trying to get his own movie off the ground. He won't talk about the project, but muses about his desire to create something that deals with emotions and the innocence of childhood. "Effects are often used to create something that's beyond the everyday," says the father of three, "but what you can miss are those tiny moments within your day."
Still, it's nice to know you can take those tiny moments and make them happen