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The Commercial Process: A Director's Point of View – Part 1

“The Commercial Process: A Director’s Point of View – Part One” by Tony Johns

What is a Commercial Director? Unlike a feature film director, who has at least 90 minutes to tell a story, a commercial director has, usually, only 30 seconds. Like a feature film director, however, the onus is on the commercial director to tell a story and to entertain. More than this though he has to persuade the consumer to buy a product. How the commercial director goes about this is to a large extent dependent on budget. This can be anything from a few thousand dollars to a few million but the approach from start to finish is usually no different from the approach to feature filmmaking. The same technical crew and staff are required as well as the same post-production follow through.

One of the major differences is the amount of time allowed for principal photography. A medium size commercial will more than likely take one to two days shooting. A top end commercial can take anywhere between 3 to 14 days and it is not unheard of for a commercial production to shoot for six weeks or longer.

Commercials can very in length but usually they run at 15 sec, 30 sec, 45 sec, 1 min, or 90 sec and, if being shown in cinemas, up to 3 minutes. Television commercials, unlike feature films, can never be a frame over or under the required time frame.

Advertising agencies have creative teams normally consisting of an Art Director and Copywriter but the size of the team can vary from campaign to campaign. The account director (suit) from an agency looks after the client’s interests and liaises between the client, the creative teams, the producers, etc. The suit may have only one client to look after but that client can have several products to sell (e.g. Ford Motors). The suit’s main aim is to look after the welfare of the client.

Depending on the type of account, creative teams will work on several campaigns or, in some cases, work for just the one client. A creative team will put forward several ideas for a television commercial before the client finally accepts one. It is not uncommon for the script (board) to go to research. Research is a way of determining whether an idea will prove popular and indeed, whether or not it has crossed the bounds of good taste. That is, is the commercial ‘politically correct’ (i.e. will it offend anyone), is it targeting the right consumer group and more importantly, can people identify the product. There is no point in spending half a million to make a commercial if no one knows what it is trying to sell. If the results of the research are negative any of the following can occur. The script is revised (do characters, situations need changing?). The dialogue is changed. The script is scrapped altogether ­ some really great ideas have been lost this way.

Once the script has been approved the next step is to hire a director. There are several ways of approaching this. The creative team might sift through countless director’s Showreels until they find a director who they feel can do justice to their idea. The agency’s TV producer will recommend a director. This can happen when agencies have a new creative team or the team is inexperienced. A creative team has built up a relationship with a director who they tend to trust. Occasionally a director is lucky enough to present his showreel to the creative team at the precise time they are looking for someone. (Right time, right place). Word of mouth.

With most brand commercials several directors will be approached to submit a treatment. This treatment outlines the director’s ideas and approach to the commercial. This should include everything from art direction to talent, to lighting, to the finished look. The treatment can some times win or lose the job for the director. In some cases a director will put together a demo tape (anamatic) of his ideas. This may consist of stills, wild footage, graphics, etc.

At the same time the director’s producer is asked to submit a budget. This also plays a significant role in whether the director gets the job or not. Too low and the agency might wonder about the capabilities of the producer/director team. Too high and they might be dismissed altogether. More often though, if the director is the preferred choice, he will be asked to re-think his ideas to accommodate the budget or the agency may approach the client for more money. The difficulty for the producer when budgeting a commercial is that not all agencies give ballpark figures to work with. Another problem is that the agency’s ideas for a commercial can outstrip the client’s projected budget. In other words the client has been sold an idea by the agency without fully appreciating the full production cost.

In my next article I will discuss in more depth the treatment process and the communication between the director and creative team.

Tony Johns Bio: An award winning international television commercial Director, Tony Johns came to this profession through his involvement as a successful recording artist in the 1980’s. Tony began directing music promos for his own band and was the first independent director in New Zealand to do so. Until that time all band promos had been directed by Television New Zealand staff. Impressed with his refreshingly innovative and creative music promos airing on Television New Zealand, Tony was invited by music promos for other recording artists of the day. Advertising agencies Saatchi & Saatchi and Colenso, attracted by Tony’s success with music promos, commissioned him to direct television commercials.

The demand for Tony’s directing talents compelled him to defer his musical ambitions to concentrate on his burgeoning directing career. It was a natural career change he was more than willing to make given the new opportunities to indulge his passion for story telling. Tony’s ability to see beyond the basic script, visualising all the details from the selection of professional talent, to the details of art direction, visualizing camera angles and creative lighting design, to the final edit design in the planning stages of every project, sets him apart.

Tony has directed commercials in New Zealand, Australia, Singapore and Indonesia. Tony has recently come under the umbrella of WeDoFilms in the USA. Samples of Tony’s work can be viewed at www.wedofilms.com and he can be contacted at lintonfilms@xtra.co.nz

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