Award-Winning Commercial Production on Film

Published on website: June 29, 2010
Categories: Bob Fisher , Commercials , The StoryBoard Blog

Simon Duggan, ACS, Darren Lew and Greig Fraser, ACS took top cinematography honors in the 19th annual Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP) Show: The Art & Technique of the American Commercial. The television commercials they shot were chosen by their peers as the most-effective visual storytelling last year in a highly-competitive field.

The TV spots were featured at the premiere of the AICP Show on June 8 at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. They are compelling examples of how the art of telling stories with moving images can influence thoughts and feelings about products and services offered by advertisers. The stories and visual grammars were radically different:

  • Duggan shot a 30-second spot called "Lost Barrel" for Jameson Irish Whiskey. It opens with a barrel of whiskey rolling off the deck of an old-fashioned sailing ship during a stormy day at sea. A sailor jumps into the ocean in a seemingly impossible and dangerous attempt to save it. The message it sends is that the barrel of whiskey is so valuable that the sailor is willing to risk his life to retrieve it. There is a cut-away to the sailor being confronted by an octopus. Another cut-away takes the audience to a solemn funeral scene on a beach. There is a happy ending when the sailor comes striding out of the ocean with a triumphant smile on his face and the barrel on his shoulder.
  • Lew shot a 30-second commercial called "America" for Levi's. The spot features a fast-moving montage of images of girls, boys, men and women of various ages, ranging from a corporate executive to people treating themselves to a free ride on top of a train. The spot was filmed in a wide range of environments at various times of day. It concludes with a shot of a huge sign that says America. The visual message is that Levis is the leisure attire of choice for people in all sectors of life in America.
  • Fraser shot a 90-second spot called "The Life" for Xbox Halo 3's interactive computer game. The commercial escorts the audience on a journey to the 26th century where United Nations soldiers are engaged in a battle with alien beings. There are shots tracing the life of a human soldier from childhood through middle age. In a close-up he makes eye to eye contact with the audience. The spot plays like a science-fiction movie that invites the audience to participate by playing the game.

The first commercials produced during the dawn of the television industry in the late 1940s and early '50s were created by ad agency personnel. There was live-action content integrated into programs. For example, men dressed in firemen uniforms sang a song about Texaco during Milton Berle's live television show. Another example: An announcer named John Stevenson opened The Lucille Ball Show by asking the studio audience if they inhaled when they smoked. Then, he put a cigarette in his mouth, inhaled deeply, and told the audience that he preferred Philip Morris.

Kensinger Jones at the Leo Burnett agency is generally credited with pioneering the use of filmed commercials in 1958. One of his first successful spots was produced for Campbell's tomato juice. Jones used time lapse technology to depict the growth of a tomato. Later that year, he went to work for Campbell-Ewald where he produced a series of phenomenally successful commercials for Chevrolet in collaboration with a freelance cinematographer named Gary Snitzer.

Their first spot featured a young actor leaving his house on the way to pick up his date for the senior prom. His father, mother and sister waved goodbye as he strode from the house to the curb where a new Chevrolet convertible was parked. It was his surprise graduation present. There was a corsage on the front seat for his date.

The only audio was, "What a gal! What a night! What a car! The new Chevrolet!" followed by what became a familiar tune and lyric as background music for countless other commercials: "See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet."

That commercial opened a new frontier in the art of visual storytelling.

The AICP was founded in 1972 as a forum where independent television commercial producers and directors could share ideas and advocate progress in advancing the art and craft. Some 80 to 85 percent of commercials that air on television in the United States are produced by its members, says AICP CEO/President Matt Miller.

Kodak sponsored the first dinner honoring the cinematographers whose commercials were chosen for the Show reel in 1998. It has become a tradition.

Duggan, Lew and Fraser brought diverse backgrounds to their projects. Duggan was born in Sydney, Australia, where he was a still photography hobbyist during his youth. He began his career in 1979 working his way up through the ranks of the film camera crew system with world class cinematographers, including Dean Semler, ASC, ACS, Peter James, ASC, CSC and John Seale, ASC, ACS. Duggan began shooting and directing commercials during the late 1980s. He has also earned feature film cinematography credits, including I, Robot and Live Free or Die Hard.

Darren Lew
Lew was born and raised in Los Angeles. He studied philosophy at NYU and took photographs for the student newspaper, because it gave him opportunities to meet interesting people. Lew began his career as a photojournalist for The Village Voice newspaper. He subsequently worked as an assistant to iconic still photographer Annie Leibovitz for a year and with fashion photographer Steven Meisel for a dozen years. Lew began shooting behind the scenes film with a Bolex camera during still photo shoots. That led to his first commercial project in 2003.

Greig Fraser

Fraser was born and raised in Mebourne, Australia. He majored in still photography at the Melbourne Institute of Technology. Fraser began his career at a local film production company, where he transitioned from still photography to cinematography. Fraser worked his way up through the camera crew system and segued into shooting music videos, which led to opportunities to shoot commercials and narrative films. He has earned some 20 short and long form narrative film credits since 2000. Fraser was on the Daily Variety "10 Cinematographers to Watch" list in 2009.

One obvious common denominator is that Duggan, Lew and Fraser began traveling on their career paths by exposing one film frame at a time with still cameras. Another common denominator is that was 35 mm motion picture film was the medium of choice for their award-winning commercials, because it gave them the creative freedom to shoot in challenging environments and record images that evoke emotional responses.

Simon Duggan

"Lost Barrel" was produced in Auckland, New Zeeland, in collaboration with director Noam Murro. They built a scale-sized stern of a ship on a hydraulic gimbal, which enabled them to rock the set like a boat on the ocean. A wind machine was used to create the illusion that waves were rocking the boat. There was a blue screen behind the boat. Shots of the ocean and sky were composited into the background during postproduction. The underwater shot was filmed in a swimming pool. The octopus was a believable CGI composited into the scene. The final shot was filmed on a beach.

"We were shooting with the 250-speed daylight film which recorded the nuances in colors and contrast that make the images look and feel natural," Duggan says.

America was Cary Fukunaga's first turn at the helm during the production of a commercial. The spot was filmed in four days at a variety of practical locations in and around New Orleans and San Francisco. "We couldn't have shot this commercial the way that we did if it wasn't on film," Lew emphasizes. "We were shooting in natural light in conditions including for a night scene on a lake. Flares and fireworks were our only source of light. There are scenes with deep backgrounds where we needed the latitude film offers. A lot of it was spontaneous with a handheld camera. I really drew on my photojournalism experience."

"The Life" was produced at practical locations near Budapest, Hungary. Fraser says that the locations were chosen following a long search for exterior environments which offered an out-of-this-world look. He and director Rupert Sanders have been frequent collaborators.

"Rupert is a collaborative and visually oriented director," Fraser says. "The environments we worked in ranged from exteriors with deep landscape backgrounds to a dark coal mine where we needed to record pure black and white tones. Film gave us the latitude we needed to capture the images we envisioned in every situation."

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