Director, Commercials

Published on .

At the center of every commercial is a director who conducts the cast and crew and brings the creative team's vision to life in a collaborative effort. Over the years, the director's role—to manage the shoot and control everything going on around him or her—has remained the same, even though everything else has changed: the technology, the processes involved and the structure and nature of the business.

In the early days of TV commercials, ad agencies produced live b&w spots during the network programs their clients sponsored. The process was overseen by agency producers, who came from the radio departments and were assigned to networks rather than accounts. The advent of videotape in the 1950s made live commercials, with all of their associated risks, obsolete.

Radical changes

Initially, industrial film producers dominated the field, being the only people qualified. But after the Korean War, when TV stations began to proliferate, the business of making TV commercials changed radically. Within a short time, a new job category arose within ad agencies: the TV commercials producer.

At the same time, art directors were turning to still photographers to replicate their print look in motion picture film. While the early directors had been cameramen, new talent now came from the print medium.

One print photographer who became an influential freelance director was Howard Zieff. Mr. Zieff's classic sample reel for Doyle Dane Bernbach included Alka-Seltzer's "Spicy Meatballs" and "Stomach" commercials. The first to borrow from feature film techniques, Mr. Zieff combined subtle, sophisticated comedy with a virtuoso narrative performance.

Initially, ad agencies purchased the services of the production company, not individual directors. As a result, there was a corresponding explosion in the number of commercial production houses supporting agencies, including MPO; Elliot, Unger, Elliot; Screen Gems; Horn/Griner; Filmfair; Cascade; N. Lee Lacy/Associates; Motion Associates; Habush; Filmways; and Pelican.

During the 1970s, an increasing number of agency art directors and producers began directing. Young & Rubicam and DDB became known as training grounds for such talents as Bob Giraldi, Stan Dragoti, Bert Steinhauser, Sid Myers and Dick Lowe. Mr. Giraldi started out as a comedy director but went on to develop a specialty in the flashy music video genre. He filmed singer Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video, followed by several blockbuster spots for Pepsi-Cola Co. featuring Mr. Jackson.

Genre directors

In the 1970s, agencies began requesting directors who specialized in such genres as slice-of-life, dialogue, "tabletop" (i.e., still life objects such as food and package displays), comedy, fashion, beauty and cars. Joe Sedelmaier, a former art director for Y&R in Chicago, revolutionized the use of comedy in TV spots. The inspired dementia of his early work along with his celebrated "Fast Talker" commercials for Federal Express Corp. propelled the lunatic fringe into the commercial spotlight. "Fast Talker" was named No. 11 on Advertising Age's list of the top 100 ad campaigns.

Mr. Sedelmaier was also among the first commercial directors to cast real people rather than actors. When octogenarian Clara Peller uttered, "Where's the beef?" on behalf of Wendy's International, it entered the popular vocabulary as a metaphor for anything lacking in substance.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, fears of a recession pushed the U.S. ad industry into the creative doldrums. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, European agencies were enjoying a creative renaissance, and the first of the "new wave" directors invaded the U.S. market.

Arriving with a fresh look, new ideas and a more "crafted" approach, they quickly became known as "auteurs," involved with all stages of the pre- and post-production processes. Ridley Scott drew on French New Wave films of the early 1960s to create the carefully sculpted ambiguity of Chanel's "Share the Fantasy" campaign from DDB in 1979. He went on to direct one of the most talked about commercials of all time, Apple's "1984" (No. 12 on Advertising Age's top 100 ad campaigns of the 20th century) and epitomized the British look, with his highly stylized compositions and dark vision.

Following the British were the South Africans, led by Leslie Dektor, who was known for his versatility; he also became well known in the 1980s for his use of the "shaky cam," a handheld, jagged technique for shooting, first used for Levi Strauss & Co.'s 501 jeans. The 1984 "501 Blues" campaign was ranked No. 72 on Advertising Age's list of the top 100 advertising campaigns.

New techniques meant increasing dependence on sophisticated visual effects. In the 1980s, West Coast companies such as Robert Abel & Associates, a groundbreaking effects house, made lasting contributions to the technology. Later, Abel's mantle was taken up by companies such as Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic and Digital Domain.

Increased involvement

With the growth of technology and subsequent increase in the cost of production, both agencies and clients became more involved in the process of making commercials. Directors were brought in earlier than before for consultations and were expected to have presentation and sales skills in addition to directing talent. Clients, anxious about budgets, employed cost consultants, who soon became fixtures on every shoot.

A number of successful British commercials directors turned their hand to making feature films. Adrian Lyne directed 1983's "Flashdance" and 1987's "Fatal Attraction"; Ridley Scott's movies included 1982's "Blade Runner," 1991's "Thelma & Louise," and 2000's "Gladiator"; Tony Scott made 1986's "Top Gun" and 1995's "Crimson Tide," among others; and Hugh Hudson directed 1981's "Chariots of Fire." Each moved back and forth between films and commercials, contributing to the development of a new breed: the crossover director.

Also in the 1980s, the stigma attached to the making of commercials was fading fast. Big-name movie directors realized that making commercials was not only lucrative but also allowed them to hone their craft by telling a story in 30 seconds. Feature-film directors such as Penny Marshall, Robert Altman, John Schlesinger, John Frankenheimer, Spike Lee, Tony Bill, John Badham, Martin Scorsese and David Lynch began making themselves available for commercials work. Effects perfected in the world of advertising, such as quick cuts and extreme musicality, began showing up in movies.

In 1981, the launch of cable's MTV, with its pulsing beats, high-energy rhythms, quick cuts and tracking cameras that never stayed put, forever changed the look of TV commercials. Music video directors began to dominate commercials. The production house Propaganda (based in New York and Los Angeles), which specialized in the new in-demand talent, was at the forefront of the trend.

The MTV generation spawned many stars. One such standout was the India-born Tarsem Singh Dhandwar, better known as Tarsem, who in the 1990s became one of the most feted of commercials directors, known for his bizarre tableaus, mythological imagery and offbeat humor. Tarsem directed Nike's 1994 "Good Vs. Evil" spot, which won a Gold Lion at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes, France, and a One Show award, as well as numerous Levi's spots for London-based agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty. Another standout director of the MTV generation was David Fincher, who brought a new look in cinematography and a different style of pacing to commercials for companies such as Nike.

Although directors have come and gone over the decades, one perennial has been megastar Joe Pytka. Known as the consummate professional who always gets it right, he specializes in deft, subtle performances. His work is high profile, high budget and high gloss. He got Michael Jordan and Larry Bird to tout McDonald's Corp.; Ray Charles to say "Uh, huh" for Pepsi; and fictional spokesmen Bartles and Jaymes to "Thank you for your support" of the Gallo wine cooler. And he got to know Bo Jackson, for Nike. Mr. Pytka works with only a few agencies, such as BBDO Worldwide, Leo Burnett Co. and Wieden & Kennedy.

By the 21st century, the business of producing commercials had changed dramatically from its early days. Gone were many once-thriving New York production houses, as the industry shifted to the West Coast and became technology-driven and increasingly global in scope.

Most Popular
In this article: