Not that there's anything easy about shooting toys. "It's about using your right and left brain at the same time," explains Dole, who after four years at Sunspots in Hollywood recently joined Los Angeles-based Tag Team, which bills itself as the leading production company in the toy field. "On the one hand, there's all the technical knowledge you need, all the complicated tabletop-type rigging and tweaking that has to be done. On the other hand, you're cranking up the other side of your brain to try to think like an 8-year-old. The technical mastery and the ability to direct the kids are both essential. That's what's so tricky about working in this area. When you get an 8-year-old, I don't care how many commercials he's done, he's an 8-year-old. He's not Laurence Olivier." But this is not about to faze Dole. "A lot of grownups have lost the understanding of what it is to be 8," he laments. "They can't communicate effectively with kids."
Dole doesn't have this problem. "I get down on the floor and play with my kids, and I love doing that," he insists. He's got a 7-month-old boy, too young yet to get into the boy's-toy junior testosterone groove, but his 5-year-old daughter is a dream. "When I tell her I got another job, she says, `Oh, great, what are you gonna bring me?' She's very partial to boy's toys. She's crazy about Hot Wheels." Does he ever get politically-correct grief from civilians that he's brainwashing kids into becoming toy junkies? "It's not much of an issue," he shrugs. "I'm a toy junkie myself. I get more pleasure out of working on a job for a toy I really like, but even mediocre toys can be redeeming, since they require more imagination. But toys are toys. They're entertainment."
Though he's cruising in the playtime fast lane, shooting about 40 jobs a year, Dole didn't start directing in this genre till 1992. The Chicago native didn't even think about the visual arts until college, when he became "obsessed" with still photography at the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana. Dole later taught photography in a Chicago high school, where he was asked to run a film class. "They had me take a summer course in film at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago," he recalls. "That set off something in me. No sooner did I get tenure at the school than I resigned. I had to go out and make films." He made 16mm live-action and animated movies "for my own entertainment," he says, and started knocking on the doors of ad agencies in Chicago. "Here and there I found producers who were two weeks late and a dollar short who'd hire me." He gradually built up a reel, hooked up with a local production company and eventually moved to L.A. and got a job with John Dykstra's Apogee, one of the pioneering effects companies. After four years there he went freelance. Then a package of motion-control Lego spots came his way. The rest is toy history.
Still, one wonders, is there a respect problem in his end of the business? "From some people, yeah. Mostly in the minds of those who've never worked in this part of the industry. They have no idea how difficult this work can be." Dole claims toy work can make straight tabletop look like a piece of cake. "I'm dealing with a miniature world, just like tabletop, but I may be shooting something two inches long that's moving at the scalar equivalent of 500 mph. Try shooting a forkful of pie that's moving at 10 feet per second," he scoffs. But he can handle it; not only was Dole animation and special effects director for Pee-wee's Playhouse, he's developed a miniature camera car called the RadCam and a tiny digital camera system called the DigiKam - mainly to get the shots he needs.
Camera wizardry aside, Saturday morning spots are all about emotion, and Dole insists the excitement kids display in toy commercials is largely authentic. "The joy is created in front of the camera, of course, but that joy that kids experience in play is very real. When my daughter plays with her Tyco electric racing cars, her expressions are way beyond the way the boys are portrayed in the commercial. She screams at the top of her lungs and flips over backwards. Again, some people have just lost any connection with their own youth. This may even explain the pitifully low pay scales for elementary school teachers."
Then he had to go: Time for milk and cookies.