There's a curious parallel to this pop culture trend in the ad business. Seems like a lot of type types and graphic designers are making commercials lately. Take David Carson, the designer of the wild rock mag RayGun and the onetime surf bible Beach Culture-a guy who built his reputation on illegible fonts and eye-straining layouts. BBDO/Los Angeles did just that for a typically type-driven, Gen X-aimed :30 for Glendale Federal, with the usual anti-big bank bias, that offers a cool number (1-800-41FEDUP) for slackers to call for a Glendale Federal MasterCard.
While Carson, who's hitched to no less an outfit than Tony Kaye Films (on the West Coast, while Commercial Film Management handles him in the East), has a way to go before an agency will hire him solely for his directing skills, he's already assembled a reel of sometimes grungy, always type-driven spots, for clients like Hardee's, Ryder and Budweiser.
And he's far from the only one. From London, typographer/designer Jonathan Barnbrook, who designed the titles for Tony Kaye's acclaimed Nike "Kick It" spot from London's Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson, is also working with Tony Kaye Films, and the design collective Tomato, represented by New York's Curious Pictures, now counts commercials and animated graphics as the bulk of its billings. Even Neville Brody is getting into the act, joining forces with Lost in Space, a London production company, to create CD-ROM, television and film graphics (he recently finished work on the upcoming Sly Stallone movie "Judge Dredd").
Stateside, there's P. Scott Makela and Barry Deck, who both broke into commercials with type treatments for director Jeffery Plansker, now with Propaganda. Rick Valicenti of Chicago's Thirst design group, which has done the type for a Wrigley's commercial, is also eager to direct, pushing a reel with animated tags and two short films for Gilbert paper-"when industrials get artistic," as he likes to call them.
While all of the above talents have been the focus of previous Creativity articles documenting their various creative projects and affiliations, taken together they represent the vanguard of a design movement that's committed to just that-design movement. "I can't think of anyone that is thinking about the present and the future who is interested in doing things that are static on the page," says the New York-based Deck, who's just wrapped up a batch of IDs for a Hong Kong music video channel. "The computer and the TV are on a collision course, and when they collide graphic design and directing will be the same thing."
At the moment, they're just two sides of the same coin. CD-ROMs, Web sites and other interactive projects are also presenting new opportunities for designers; considering that most of these genres and formats resemble a cross between a magazine and a commercial, the connection between design and directing is obvious.
Bedford Falls' Jay Vigon began creating on-air graphics for commercials about five years ago, but he says it's only been in the last year that agencies are offering him live-action/graphics packages, like Seiko watches for The Martin Agency and a recent campaign he finished with Kresser Stein Robaire for Kaiser Permanente health care. "I think people are beginning to see that it isn't just graphic elements," says Vigon. "Graphic design is how you see the frame."
And seeing the frame is indeed key to the often prolix style, in an age when the mute is far from moot. Unlike the designer/directors of the '80s, who tended to concentrate on visual effects, these designers frequently seek to adapt a few of the experiments gleaned in print or fringe magazines to film.
For instance, Carson tried to make the Glendale spots stand out by leaving in film "glitches" such as the edge numbers and the film defects. "It would be pretty hard to explain why you would do that for a bank other than that it speaks to a certain generation today," Carson reasons. "People automatically wanted to take these things out, and I said, 'No, no, save that. We might be able to use that.' It doesn't have to do with type, it has more to do with the unexpected and the experimental."
In the same manner, in a British spot for Hansen's soda, shot by Barnbrook, in which a swimmer dives into a pool, each step of his descent is artfully framed with words that unfurl around his sculpted body. Vigon, Makela and Tomato all intersperse assorted graphics in their spots; drawings, animated icons, arcane dingbats and the like enhance the look if not the message. In a spot that Vigon directed for a Borghese cologne called Catalyst and Lowe & Partners/SMS, he added colorful animated drawings of a baby, a heart and chemistry equations to play off the VO and enliven the standard b&w male fashion footage. Directing type and icons is "like having another actor on the screen," Vigon explains. "It needs time to spin or move a certain way. It can't be rushed, in the same way a line of dialogue can't be rushed."
The tendency to insert graphics and type into their spots transforms the live-action into merely another visual element in the mix, instead of the focal point, some observers point out. "Tomato uses live action almost like library footage, which they can reassemble, research and re-edit," says Randy Akers, a designer/director at Curious Pictures, who notes, "when I go into a shoot the live-action is the primary goal."
Ironically, Tomato has the most filmmaking experience of this group. One of its members, documentarian Greg Rood, is shooting a film about a Brazilian soccer star, parts of which will be adapted for Nike commercials. Tomato's Simon Taylor and John Warwicker have directed about 25 music videos, as well as several spots that feature live action.
Still, dialogue is sparse on Tomato's reel, limited to all-type commercials and a single Pepsi campaign for Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which Tomato scripted, shot and sound-designed. Shot on a plain white set, it's merely a Gen X-updated version of the old taste test: the VO is replaced with title cards, the people's reactions are limited to snippets of facial expressions and a few mumbled words (the people themselves are the de rigueur rainbow coalition of rad hair, piercings, tattoos and bare midriffs). "Film is just another way of describing things," Warwicker says, who points out that they structured the Pepsi spots so they wouldn't resemble typical commercials. "There's no payoff line, there's no sort of fanfare for the logo. Basically whatever angle the logo fell at under the rostrum was how it appeared oncamera."
At the same time, Warwicker is conscious of Tomato's being typecast based on a few type-driven, low-budget spots they've done, like a campaign for Nike that recycled NBA footage layered with text and numbers, set to a thumping music track. "It's a real danger for Tomato to be seen as a group that either re-edits someone's footage or that adds type to the end of something," says Warwicker. "Because we're asked to do that all the time, and we turn most of these down. "
Indeed, P. Scott Makela, represented by Case & Associates in the East and unofficially repped through Propaganda and Satellite Films on the West Coast, also fears being branded as a "type guy." He recently oversaw the graphics on a Mark Romanek-directed job for Michael Jackson's megabudget "Scream" video, and a recent campaign directed by Plansker for Lotus Notes features Makela's silver 3-D letterforms catapulting onto the screen, all of which have further spread his reputation as a type specialist.
"I don't know if it's been a curse or a blessing," he says of high-profile campaigns like Lotus. "It buries the stuff I've done myself." Falling into a film type specialty "is one of my deepest paranoias, because I want to keep pushing to get those jobs myself."
Agencies' reluctance to hand over the camera to someone who five years ago was known only as an avant-garde graphics guru is understandable, considering the high stakes and budgets. In a Ryder campaign for Ogilvy & Mather, New York, which was directed by Alex Weil of Charlex and shot by Cosimo, a noted still photographer and tabletop director, David Carson was once again recruited to do the type, which consisted of blocky, slick graphics over staid, metaphorical foot-
age of gears, crankshafts and marbles. "There was so much more to that commercial than type," explains O&M producer Jane Rubin, when asked why Carson wasn't hired to direct. "That's one of the upsetting things about our business," she adds. With so many people crowding the field "you must find a way to classify these guys to keep your sanity. If he wants to direct live-action it's up to him to prove it on his reel."
Not everyone shares Rubin's view. Mark Waites, a copywriter at Amster Yard, was one of the first to tap into Carson's type direction last year on a Start credit card commercial, directed by Tony Kaye and created and produced at Margeotes Fertitta Donaher & Weiss. Asked how he'd feel about Carson directing that entire campaign, Waites admits, "No, I wouldn't feel comfortable about it. But that's why I think it's good, because you don't want to feel cozy and safe all the time. That's how David Carson arrived at where he is."
In Britain, the atmosphere seems more conducive to allowing designers behind the lens, evidenced by the amount of live-action that Barnbrook and Tomato have produced in the last few years. But it still stands to reason that some of most powerful work on their reels is type driven. In fact, a campaign for the BBC's Radio Scotland, from Faulds Advertising in Edinburgh, which was created by Barnbrook and Tomato's Graham Wood and Simon Taylor, picked up four Silver Pencils at the D&AD Awards.
On the other hand, not all the designed-directed pieces work, either; some make the mistake of relying on slick graphics instead of concepts. Indeed, some critics question whether type designers can be more than just stylists. "They come from a very different world," says one New York exec producer, who's been following the trend. The work tends to be "very idiosyncratic, and they either get it or they don't." Being thrust out of the studio and forced to collaborate with an agency can also be unsettling for a designer. Carson uses a metaphor from a friend to describe the experience; "It almost becomes like performance art, because you have agency people sitting in chairs set up behind you so they can monitor things as you go along."
And while the importance of type in commercials may eventually go the way of many now dated stylistic trends, these designing directors will probably find themselves forced to expand their repertoire in filmmaking, or transfer their skills into the interactive realm, where they stand a good chance of dominating. "Right now I'm a director's hired gun," says Makela, who says he'd be happy if he could find a few good film projects to direct a year to complement his print and digital work. He's already achieving that aim in the arts sector, directing "Burden and Protection: The U.S. Bill of Rights," an interactive piece that will tour with the Walker Art Center's traveling exhibition "Digital Campfires," which opens in 1997.
"The rush is for visual control," Makela says, "and just being trained in film school won't be enough in the future. We'll need to be versed in new media in