Tell Me a Story

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An old desk lamp gets put out to pasture on a curb. An eerie, ashen-faced child foresees a milkless future. A tuxedoed man in his car speeds past obstacles to a wedding that turns out not to be his, but that of a lost love. There aren't a lot of spots out there that are able to compel so effortlessly but these scenarios, for Ikea, "Got Milk?" and Volkswagen, do just that. They're all supported by solid, well-executed stories, possibly offering immunity to the flick of the dreaded remote. Storytelling is one of those skills that few directors seem truly blessed with, perhaps because it involves an array of talents that aren't easy to define. Some directors say it's about instinct; others say there are very precise components that go into weaving a successful commercials yarn. Overall, it's an alchemy that combines skill, experience, intuition and maybe a handful of rules. We checked in with some of the industry's master storytellers, some who've had the chance to tell their tales both in spots and on features.

Time is of the Essence

It's a no-brainer that commercials' limited timeframe poses a unique storytelling challenge to spots directors. "The means by which you tell a story in either 30 seconds or two hours is very different," notes Crossroads' Mark Pellington, one of the more successful crossover artists, who's done films like Arlington Road and The Mothman Prophecies. "Obviously, in a movie you've got a captive audience that has time to have the story told to them. There's a longer period of time for a viewer to invest their energy and psychological headspace to having the story unfold in front of them. For a commercial, you can only tell a story in 30 seconds that can be told in 30 seconds. You don't have the time for extraneous bits. Little subtleties can get thrown out the window, because you have to cut to the basics. You have to be very economical." The fewer the frames, the more valuable each becomes to furthering the story, so each one has to be carefully chosen. "I think that what happens to a lot of people who try to do storytelling is that they don't shoot the shots they need," notes Kinka Usher. "They shoot shots that they don't need, spend too much time on those and lose track of what the story is about. Shots have to specifically relate to the story that you're telling and you have to be really focused and disciplined on how you achieve those shots."

Well, what are those shots and how do you go about choosing them? Noam Murro asserts that step one must be to establish a clear tone, what he considers the most crucial and difficult part of the storytelling process. "Once you have that in mind, that's how you can start telling the story," he says. He refers to "Birthday" for "Got Milk?" which within 60 seconds resurrects the gist of The Omen, keeping the intrigue high until the final twist. "There were specific choices made that allowed you to further the narrative along," Murro recalls. "You had to establish right away the relationship between father and son. We even had first, second and third acts - in the car; walking to the house; the party - but we had to be very economical about them and had to decide what proportion each would take in the story. But more important, what is the mise en scene, what is the tonality, the atmosphere of the whole thing?" Thus, every decision on detail was pored over as well. For example, "over discussions, the agency and I realized, only rich people poison each other, so if it's poison we're going to suggest, the atmosphere had to be wealthy. It wasn't an arbitrary decision. You could do the story in a modern house with a pi -- ata but you'd be fucked.

"You've got three basic thrusts in storytelling," he continues. "The narrative or structure, casting and music. All the rest is superfluous." Music helps to set the pace and tone. As for structure, Pellington observes successful stories in commercials usually involve a payoff, a "cause and effect, some sort of turn of events that happens, whatever the genre, for the message or emotional impact deemed necessary, whether it's whimsy, outright comedy, thrill, shock ."

"A story is a road to take and you decide how you're going to take it," Murro adds. "Some people start from point A and go to B; others start from D and go backward. Granted, I don't write the commercial, but I'm a big fan of starting in the middle of a scene. It's not about being effective, but it's about what's interesting to me to watch. My style is a bit deconstructive; I look at storytelling like a puzzle. The trick is to give the audience enough credit. I like to tell a story so it keeps you on your toes. I'm a big believer in not letting the viewer understand what's going on right away."

But often it's not just about moving from A to B. What happens when a board aspires to go all the way to Z? "Almost any story can work in 30 seconds," suggests Bryan Buckley. But it takes a lot of skill to make sure you're not just trying to shove "10 pounds of shit into a 5-pound bag. You just have to be very creative. An interesting example was the Willie Nelson spot for H&R Block. Think about how complicated it was." Careful editing by Karen Knowles (see Creativity, April 2003) and sharp performances helped to tame an ambitious plotline that covers a lot of ground in half a minute: Willie's financial difficulties; an ad agency's courtship to get him to become a spokesperson; Willie's decision to shill, which finds him wandering around on a set with his face burning from shaving foam. "You have to make a spot appear simple even though it's incredibly complicated," Buckley explains. "That's why in advertising, I think what works best still has a simple objective. It's really about the idea." After everything's in, however, there are also those impalpable touches that enable the viewer to actually connect with the story, those notes and flourishes unique to each director's vision. The elusive Michel Gondry obliquely offers, " I try to keep some elements of magic which are not only here to tell the story." Buckley always comes back to the idea of "texture. It's really important," he notes. "I look at work and it has all the right bells and whistles. Spike Jonze, Traktor. Then there are those incredible knockoff artists who come along and try to replicate that but can't because they don't see the little things."

Motivation, Shmotivation

Talent is a key way of establishing that texture, Buckley notes. Or, as Murro bluntly puts it, "Casting is God. If you haven't got the cast, you can kiss the spot goodbye." The right talent can ensure that connection with the audience, often with just a look or expression. In fact, sometimes a face is the only thing you might have to go by, notes Usher. He recently directed a Sour Starburst spot that featured Chinese talent who spoke no English throughout. "The visual storytelling is so clear that you don't need English," he says. "You don't need subtitles, either. You watch that spot and you totally get it, and yet everyone's speaking Chinese. In longform, you have the opportunity to establish, build and resolve character. You can do that in commercials filmmaking, but I think the really big difference is that you have to create your story visuall. In fact, the purest filmmaking has no music, no dialogue, but a perfectly understood story".

Buckley and many others note that the bulk of the work with talent takes place in the casting sessions. "Nothing's hard to me about directing talent," he says. "It's making sure you have the right people in front of the camera. That's where all the work is done for me. It's not an enjoyable process. But then you show up to the shoot and it's a piece of cake. When we did the Las Vegas tourism spots we went through 1,000 people, trying to figure out what would make this interesting. You have to find that person who conveys an idea through his face and his reactions. It comes down to the texture of the individuals. That's where it really gets interesting. That, to me, is the core. Texture comes from that, and from that comes character."

The difficulty of finding the proper cast explains why master storyteller Joe Pytka tends to hold on to good talents once he finds them, thus the familiar faces informally known as "Pytka's players." "A lot of actors don't understand how to make a role theirs," he says. "I try to use actors who define a character and a role, who are able to do something special with it. I'm constantly using people over and over when they prove themselves, because they can create something for me rather than my risking something unknown with someone I don't know." In order to get believable performances, "I look for truth and honesty in the actor, as much as you can in a commercial. Also, you have to be an observer of human life and know how people behave in reality as opposed to theatricality. That's not to say some theatricality isn't a blessing, especially in terms of humor. But in order to be convincing in any medium, including commercials, which is a compromised medium, you have to believe what you're seeing. There are all kinds of variables in terms of what reality is. You just have to fit the truthfulness of a performance to whatever you're doing, whether it's in a commercial or film or whatever. You have to be open to what's believable and what can be accepted by an audience."

Or, in Murro's case, just state what you want. "I always say motivation, shmotivation. When directing talent, don't overload them with your personal vision. You have 30 seconds - you have to tell them exactly what you expect. Your direction has to be very literal, not vague." Pellington's view on character and talent has changed since he moved into features. "Before I did a movie, in commercials it was all about a result. Here's the situation, get to the result. You don't necessarily have the time in a commercial for a character to build an arc, so when he makes a certain choice in a scene, he pretty much already has to be there. There's less shading of characters. You pretty much have to say, 'This is you, this is your purpose.' Now I work with my talent a little more, and I think I have a much stronger eye for whether somebody has any acting ability or not. There are real actors who do commercials and there are people who are just commercials actors. It's a very different thing."

But just because someone can perform for two hours doesn't make him an automatic stud on quickie spots. "The funny thing is I've seen really good actors from theater, TV or film do a commercial and suck," Buckley says. "They have so much more depth as acting talents but can't pull it off in spots. And then some people do beautiful work in commercials but can't sustain in longform."


Although visual trickery and other technical trappings are often cited by the creative community as detractors, even masks for a paltry story, their judicious application can bring a tale freshness and depth. Take Usher's clutterbusting Mountain Dew spot in which a Dew dude butts heads with a ram, which would never have been possible without Method's well-executed effects; or more poignant tales like Mike Mills' "Bubble," for VW, in which the split-screen format helps to drive home Bill Briggs' quotidian existence, amplifying the exhilaration and longing he feels as he gazes out at the convertible Bug below. Pellington recently directed a spot for Eli Lilly, about a woman with adult ADD who can't concentrate at work. It's undeniably "effectsy," infused with a lot of quick cuts and a variety of filmic looks; "It's more psychological, so I used imagery that was both surreal and everyday that gave the impression of how hard it was to control the thoughts flooding through her mind. But you only do what the story, the emotion allows you to do. I think people would rather see a great story that looks horrible than walk out of a movie that looked great but meant nothing." Skillful, unadulterated storytelling might explain why some of Pytka's spots for Hallmark continue to run for more than a decade. "I just try to apply classic film techniques to my stories," he says. "I tell the story as simply as possible through very good casting and manipulation of the script here and there. I avoid being too trendy for the simple reason that when you look at it in restrospect, it becomes dated."

Usher agrees. "I chose storytelling because I knew it had tremendous longevity. When I worked with Pytka, I thought, 'This guy's going to work forever.' And he will, because storytellers are few and far between. It's a real craft. Anybody can go out and shoot flat-looking shitty film until the cows come home, but who can make your story really be a great story? There aren't that many who can, but the ones who can are still around. Giraldi, Pytka, Dektor. Storytelling is not a trend. It's human history, from the time guys were sitting around a fire telling tales, to this very moment. It hasn't changed much and it won't."

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