Skip to main content

And Now a Word from Our Sponsor: Doc-Makers Go Commercial

By Tamara Krinsky

Filmmaker Stacy Peralta, who shoots commercials for Nonfiction Spots.

What do recent commercials for Secret, Budweiser and Dove have in common? All have been directed by award-winning documentarians. Nonfiction Spots, founded in 1995 by Loretta "LJ" Janeski and Michael Degan, specializes in crossing over doc directors into the advertising arena. Clients include Jessica Yu, Stacy Peralta, Barbara Kopple and Paul Crowder, among others.

At first glance, documentarians and television commercials might seem like strange bedfellows, but with today's focus on "real people" ads, it makes sense that more and more nonfiction directors are being tapped to helm spots. Says Janeski, "I know a lot of people think they hate advertising, but I think what's true is people hate bad advertising. People like messages that they feel are authentic and when they aren't being beaten about the head to go buy a product. It doesn't seem like an automatic handshake, but for us it's kind of like taking the best of the documentary or nonfiction world and then marrying it to commercial sensibilities."

Peralta (Dogtown and Z-Boys; Riding Giants) cites his storytelling ability as the main reason he's often hired for commercial spots. He recently directed a spot for Budweiser that used archival photographs to honor the Earnhardt family's three generations of NASCAR success. "When I pitched them, I said the easiest thing I can do is to put together a rock video of these images," says Peralta. "Instead, let's tell the story and the history of this family, designing the photos in a way that builds with the emotion of the music."

In addition to the financial rewards of the commercial arena, many directors enjoy their commercial work because of the opportunities it presents to work with great crew people and experiment with different formats and equipment. Academy Award-winner Jessica Yu (In the Realms of the Unreal; The Living Museum; Breathing Lessons) has played with everything on commercial shoots from cherry pickers to different filters and lenses to steadicams, thereby increasing her technical range. She's then taken this experience back into her documentary work, finding new ways to shoot things.

Filmmaker Jessica Yu (right) directing a commercial for Nonfiction Spots. Photo: Julia Salzman. Courtesy of Nonfiction Spots and Longform

While some nonfiction purists might see commercial work as "selling out," Yu disagrees. She recently shot Secret's 50th Anniversary campaign, in which she utilized her doc interviewing skills in a set of spots where pairs of women revealed secrets to one another on camera. "If you can look at it as something where you get to practice your craft in a completely different situation, then it really is something that can enhance your talents as a filmmaker all around," Yu maintains. "If you can also have some financial cushion, you end up learning to compromise less in your own work in a lot of ways because you just don't have to make every decision based on whether or not you can afford one more roll of film."

Breaking into commercial work is not easy. According to Janeski, there are approximately 6,000 to 7,000 spot directors, and the field is extremely competitive. She advises those interested in crossing over to both study the form, as one would any other art, and try to come up with some work that shows a unique point of view or style. An actual spec spot is helpful because it's a format to which agencies can immediately relate, but another possibility is excerpting or compressing a piece from a film that feels like a spot. Another important skill is the ability to shoot beautiful footage, which aspiring commercial directors should highlight on their reels.

 "The most powerful ads make human connections, not advertising connections," Janeski notes. "I'm not sure that's my quote, but I love it. I think that's precisely what documentary filmmakers bring to commercials. At Nonfiction, you don't have a spot shop--a commercial production company with a lot of directors who are trying to emulate a form. At Nonfiction you have a lot of authentic documentarians who are just bringing it over to spots. They really come from a place where it's them--who they are and what they live and breathe."


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary.