By Published on .

As a 20-year-old college kid in 1965, Bruce Martin remembers walking into the commercial production company of MPO in New York and being overwhelmed by the buzz of activity.

"There was such a vibe," he recalls. "It was a controlled din. And it was captivating."

MPO, a top production house, was among a number of companies busy redefining the look and feel of advertising, adding a level of visual taste and style to a form previously flat and one-dimensional-through directors like Howard Zieff, Michael Cimino, Steve Horn, Norman Griner, doing work for such hot, creative shops as Doyle Dane Bernbach, Jack Tinker & Partners and Carl Ally Inc.

Like many people in the business, Mr. Martin, now president of RSA/USA, the production company owned by British directors Ridley and Tony Scott, got his start at MPO.

A mini-version of a Hollywood studio, MPO was a soup-to-nuts operation, offering clients at its East Side Manhattan location (today home of EUE/Screen Gems) the services of staff directors and editors working from their own shooting stages. The only thing missing was a film lab, says Morty Dubin, an MPO alum and currently president of Iris Films.

Of course, a film lab wasn't needed in the early days. The beginnings of commercial making had its roots in agencies' production of live spots during the course of the network programs their clients sponsored. Agency producers were assigned to networks rather than to accounts.

Hooper White, the veteran commercial-production cost consultant and former Leo Burnett Co. producer, flew from Chicago to New York each week to produce spots in NBC's Studio 8H (now home to "Saturday Night Live") that ran in "Your Lucky Strike Hit Parade."

"The huge studio was filled with sets for the production numbers," he says, "and off to one side was the commercial area."

The advent of videotape in the late '50s relegated live commercials to the dust bin. Videotape allowed commercials to be produced during the day and pre-recorded.

"A new job category arose within the agency: that of television commercial producer," says Mr. White.

A parallel development was taking place in the creative department-the rise of the art director. By the time the '60s rolled around, art directors were giving commercials the same critical eye previously reserved for print.

The art director's modus operandi wasn't to turn to the documentary or training-film directors who had been working in commercials to this point, but to the still photographers with whom they had developed relationships in print.

"The early gods of the business, [Bill] Bernbach and [David] Ogilvy, were print men-they didn't care for television at first," says Steve Frankfurt, then the youngest creative director in Young & Rubicam's history and eventually president of the New York office (and now chairman of Frankfurt Balkind Partners).

"But television commercials began to change when art directors began to take a conceptual role."

The key to the success of these directors, says Norman Griner, who with his partner at the time, Steve Horn, made the transition from stills to film in 1965, "was their ability to deal with a moving target."

This could be read: translate their skills from stills, from lighting to propping to casting.

"Art directors were used to working in print with really tasteful guys who could outfit a set lavishly, with rich detail," says Dick Hall, Mr. Griner's longtime producer partner. "That's what they wanted in television."

As art directors moved more behind the camera, it was only natural to take over the task completely. As the '60s merged into the '70s, an increasing number of art directors and, to a lesser extent, producers began to direct. Y&R was a veritable training ground for directors; among the talents who graduated were Bob Giraldi, noted for a number of the long-running Miller Lite "ex-jocks" commercials; Stan Dragoti, who worked on "I Love New York" at Wells, Rich, Greene; Tim Newman, the cousin of Randy Newman who worked with him on Nike's "I Love L.A."; Dominic Rossetti, of Dunkin' Donuts fame; Bob Eggers, who worked on American Express' "Do You Know Me?" spots; and Michael Ulick, known for DDB's IBM Selectric typewriter work.

From the '70s to the middle '80s, the major point of entry to commercial production was through the agency creative and production departments. At DDB, for example, Bert Steinhauser, Sid Myers, George Gomes and Dick Lowe made the transition, while legendary art directors like Bob Gage-of Polaroid-campaign fame, among many others-directed their own spots through the shop's Directors Studio in-house operation.

On the West Coast, the business was following its own trajectory. Commercials, long considered a poor relation to movie and TV production, became a part of the mix in Hollywood as spots grew in complexity and sophistication-and as their budgets increased.

Ted Goetz, a New York film editor who moved to Los Angeles in 1953 and found himself producing commercials for Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn, says most of the spot work taking place in California into the early '60s was a combination of regional work and jobs out of New York that required equipment and facilities found only in Hollywood.

Mr. Goetz shot many of his early jobs at the commercial-production division of Universal Pictures, one of the few major film studios to run a successful commercial division.

While the TV networks were the early training ground for producers in the East, movie studios were in the West. At Universal, Mr. Goetz met Gus Jekel, a former Disney animator who in 1960 founded FilmFair, which eventually grew to be one of the larger West Coast production companies. Mr. Goetz joined FilmFair in 1964, spending almost 30 years there.

Dick Kerns got his early training at Universal before starting the commercial division of Columbia Pictures-the only other major studio to fare well in commercials thanks to its purchase of the New York production giant Elliot Unger Elliot, renamed EUE/Screen Gems.

By the '80s, EUE and its satellite companies-essentially wholly owned subsidiaries set up to provide individual directors with their own sense of identity-had grown to be one of the largest commercial production houses. It bought out Columbia in 1984, effectively ending major-studio participation in commercial production.

The 1980s saw other major changes. Creatively, commercial work fell under the influence of a "new wave" of directors with a decided foreign accent.

The ad industry was suddenly awash with directing talent from every other English-speaking nation, with prime exporters Britain and South Africa, the latter home to directors Leslie Dektor-responsible for much of the 1980s Levi's 501 jeans work via Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco-and Peter Smillie, who recently did the networkMCI teaser commercials starring young actress Anna Paquin.

Britain offered up star directors Howard Guard and the Brothers Scott, the latter largely unknown in the U.S. until hired by Fairbanks Films in New York in the early '80s (Ridley gained attention in '79 for his surreal "Share the Fantasy" spot for Chanel). Fairbanks started in 1982, but quickly became known for introducing top foreign talent to the U.S. agency market.

Some other developments also were reshaping the creative side: agencies started attracting feature-film directors for commercial making; a whole new breed of talent nurtured by the growing music video industry began to queue up to Madison Avenue.

The geographic center of the business suddenly shifted to the West Coast.

Today, the commercial production business couldn't be more different in style and structure than it was in its infancy. Gone is the midtown vibe of places like MPO, replaced by the laid-back pace of a city like Venice, Calif., home of the spacious studio of commercial production's reigning top director, Joe Pytka, along with the futuristic virtual offices of Chiat/Day and special effects house Digital Domain. Within a two-block radius converges the talent and technology that symbolizes what commercial-making has come to after 50 years.

Most Popular
In this article: