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Documercials: Shooting Ad Spots Can Be Boon to Nonfiction Filmmakers

By Tamara Krinsky

A lesbian couple shares heartfelt feelings about motherhood. Scientists separate fact from fiction about the abilities of robots. A racecar driver describes his scariest driving experience--bringing his daughter home from the hospital. A 100-year-old doctor reminisces about creating heart therapies for children.

You may be wondering what documentary films these scenes are from, but they are actually all moments from commercial campaigns. Documentarians directing commercials is nothing new--after all, the Maysles brothers were hired to helm an American Express commercial in the mid-1980s, when filmmaker Joe Berlinger worked at Ogilvy & Mather--but the combination of the marketing power of the Internet and the current craze for "real people" spots has made this a particularly fertile time for crossover artists.

As people spend less time uniformly watching traditional broadcast outlets at a set time every night, the massive general audience has fragmented into myriad splinter groups, each with its own demographics and special interests. Savvy advertisers willing to take a risk are reacting by embracing content made specifically for the Web, going beyond the 30-second spot and getting behind everything from short films to nonfiction Web series. The material generated is being used on their own sites as well as wherever their target audience can be found, such as Facebook.  

"The advertisers' embracing of the Web has really been a boon to documentarians working in this arena, particularly to me," says Berlinger (Crude; Metallica: Some Kind of Monster), who has shot fewer and fewer traditional 30-second commercials over the last five years. "Sometimes the budget for Web content is better than the budget I can get for an hour-long documentary program on basic cable. The resources are there."

If a filmmaker is lucky, he or she will land a campaign that offers the opportunity to explore a new area. Doug Pray (Hype!, Surfwise), who has helmed spots for clients such as Adidas, iShares and ESPN/Nascar, says, "There are some jobs that have very little corporate manipulation and can be highly creative, self-contained movies about fascinating characters or events. They just happen to be sponsored and associated with a brand [in the same way that most public content and film festivals are sponsored]. What matters is how meaningful the work itself can be; does it transcend the brand and is it truly interesting, inspiring or moving? Then it's good. If not, it's just another ad, and all the worse for trying to hide itself."

Barney Waters, vice president of marketing at Palladium Boots, seems to understand this creative mentality. When his company re-launched its heritage boot line in 2009, it incorporated a documentary series titled Palladium's Explorations, which lives on the Palladium Boots' website. The series showcases the flavor of the brand by taking viewers on an "off-the-beaten-path" exploration of major cities around the world. The most recent piece features actor Johnny Knoxville exploring abandoned industrial spaces in Detroit. Says Waters, "On the Web, compelling content gets the eyeballs and gets shared, so the brand message has to be woven into great content--and preferably in an organic way."

While companies like Palladium have specifically carved out budgets for online campaigns, many ad agencies want or expect to have "bonus material" from the initial commercial shoot to put on the Web. "That can be great if they are willing to pay for the extra resources and time needed to accomplish that. However, problems can arise if that bonus material ends up taking time away from your primary objective," cautions Loren Mendell (Our Time Is Up, FRONTLINE/World), whose commercial work includes a branded content series for Gatorade.

Even on a constricted budget, though, the opportunity to shoot more material and more often can still have benefits for filmmakers, including the chance to explore new visual storytelling techniques and play with expensive toys like cranes and state-of-the-art cameras. And of course, the hefty paycheck that often accompanies commercial work can help a filmmaker sustain him or herself between documentary features.

Some of the benefits are less anticipated. Jessica Sanders (After Innocence; Sing Opera!), who recently started doing commercial work directing spots for clients and products such as Toyota and the iPad, says that one of the things she's enjoying is getting to work with large crews, as opposed to the skeleton team that usually shoots docs. The mix of personalities, as well as the opportunity to work with top cinematographers, costume designers and production folk has been a valuable experience, especially as she looks to move into narrative features.

Working with such master craftspeople while shooting spots for clients such as Powerade and Adidas has informed UK director Tomas Leach (Beekeeping After War: Stories from the Former Yugoslavia) about the economy of film language. "The way stories are told in such a short timeframe in commercials is fascinating," says Leach. "Each shot counts and every word is essential. I think that this efficiency of language and visual storytelling is incredibly important. I want every frame of my documentaries to be important to the film."

Sometimes, just the opportunity to work on lighter fare is a bonus. Sanders has been able to use commercials as an outlet for her sense of humor. "In doing more commercial work, my own personality is able to shine. I'm more into quirky stuff. It's a relief that I don't have to make a Holocaust movie," she jokes, adding, "I'm really, really happy right now-ecstatic--taking a break from really intense documentary subjects."

Other benefits include fast turnaround time, which can provide a quick hit of the completion high one gets from finishing a project; the opportunity to share one's work with a global audience; and a direct line to viewer feedback via online tools. "Marketers today, like never before, are able to gauge the exact impact of their campaigns, and this is a great tool for filmmakers and artists as well," says Pascui Rivas (Mande; Jean Lewis), whose documentary for the UNICEF Tap Water project has received several awards. "It is very hard to sense an entire audience's reaction to your work in a movie theater-although I do still consider this to be the truest of all visual experiences-but social networks allow us to follow up on the impact of our work in an immediate and somewhat omniscient way."

These benefits are a fair trade for the specialized skill set nonfiction filmmakers bring to "real people" commercials. Documentary directors generally have a heightened sensitivity to what looks and sounds real, and an ability to create an environment where that can thrive. They are able to capture intimate moments from people who might not normally feel comfortable being filmed. This lends a sense of authenticity to commercial campaigns, which then resonate with audiences on a more personal level.

James Dirschberger (Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer; commercials for Lucky Brand Jeans, West Elm/Williams Sonoma) pins this ability to find authenticity to a focus on human interaction with the product, rather than the actual product itself. "Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris is a great example of this," he says. "In his campaign for Quaker Oats, he used distortion and optical illusions to examine how we see ourselves, and highlights the weight-control aspect of Quaker's campaign. It throws you for a loop--and suddenly you find yourself being emotionally invested in an oatmeal commercial. That's pretty incredible, and I think coming from a documentary background has a lot to do with that. I believe that a more traditional director would be more concerned with making sure there's extra steam coming off the oats."

The process of shooting a documentary-style commercial often involves some education for the client and the agency. Commercials are usually tightly scripted affairs, with input from multiple sources, whereas nonfiction stories tend to find themselves as real life unfolds over an extended period of time. Clients must learn to not overly script in advance and to trust the process. Sometimes, a hypothetical script is needed to give the clients an understanding of what they are (hopefully) going to get, and a "dream script" is written from a pre-interview or research on the subject.

Tasha Oldham (The Smith Family), who describes her process as "Plan, plan and then plan some more," recommends being very specific and detailed with the client. "Have your shots list, have serious pre-production meetings-get everyone on the same page from the get-go," she advises. "Then once it's planned out to the very last detail, I go on set and stay in the moment and the planning will guide me to be open to what the universe brings. That is the beauty of what we do. We deal with real people, with real lives and one question might take you in a whole new direction."

Berlinger believes that one of the reasons he's consistently gotten commercial work is because of his understanding of the mindset of the advertising world. "A documentary film is your artistic vision, and you want to be unyielding in maintaining that vision," he maintains. "But when doing commercials or Web content for a client, my attitude is, 'I'm here to serve the clients and their vision.' Obviously, you want to have an artistic vision for the project, but it's a service mentality; their objectives, as opposed to yours."

Ultimately, when the right client and filmmaker find one another, you get a beautiful hybrid of documentary and commercial styles. Loretta Janeski, partner/executive producer with NonFiction Unlimited--a company that exclusively represents commercial directors like Jessica Yu and Steve James for commercial work--says, "We've grabbed from the doc world this sense of beautiful authenticity, the sense of story arc, the organic moment, and then taken from the commercial world this attention to frame, a sense of art direction and a stylish approach. When you marry the two of those, it becomes something super-special. Both in commercials and in the short film world, you now see substance and style, content and beautiful visuals."


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine.