Everybody likes making television commercials. In advertising circles, the process of making a TV spot is often referred to as “the fun part.” Once I reveal my occupation to someone I’ve recently met, I’m nearly always asked, “What’s it like to make a TV commercial?”
Nobody ever asks me about online banner ads or direct mail pieces. Which is too bad, because those are fun, too.
It’s easy to understand the attraction. Creating a TV commercial is as close to making a Hollywood movie as we’re likely to get. There are scripts, actors, complicated camera equipment, and even somebody assigned to yell “Action!” and “Cut!” It feels big time.
And you know what? That stuff is big time. It’s the stuff you forget that yanks you into reality.
For example, about 80% of a shoot is setting up lighting. Maybe it’s not 80%. Maybe it’s 78%. Math isn’t my strength. But it’s a large percentage of time devoted to watching dudes experiment with gels and apply clamps to rafters.
Because there’s so much lighting, creating a TV spot involves a great deal of sitting around. If you can’t swap out a lens or re-route a dolly track, you spend a lot of time mooching at the craft services table, which can be dicey, because the Talent is likely doing the same thing.
Avoiding the Talent is critical. Imagine the emotional fragility of someone waiting all day to deliver a single line or to stand in the background with a cup of coffee. By the time the Director is ready to shoot the scene, the Talent is borderline psychotic. It’s better to hang out with The Producer.
The unhappiest person on set is The Producer. The weight of the entire production is set on his or her slumped shoulders. Constantly, the Producer is muttering cryptic messages like, “We’re already seven and a half minutes behind,” or “There’s not enough budget for another pair of yellow tuxedo pants.” To the Producer, the most successful spot is the one shot under budget and on time.
Time is in great supply for The Writer during a TV commercial shoot. The Writer’s primary function is something called “story control,” which is to assure that the shoot remains grounded by the narrative of the script (he or she is expected to deliver this service as quietly as possible).
The Writer’s secondary function is to amuse everybody on set with witty anecdotes. A crafty Writer saves his meatiest material for when the grips are setting up the lights.
Far busier than the Writer is the Art Director, who is charged with the Herculean tasks of set design, continuity, color coordination, and the assorted mad whims of the shoot’s Director. There is no peace for the Art Director, only OCD insanity as he or she labors endlessly to arrange a set so that it doesn’t look arranged at all.
The Art Director’s much cooler accomplice is the Props Guy, whose mission is to locate, acquire, and if necessary build all the stuff needed for the scene. Imagine how this person must live, his apartment bursting with lava lamps, antique ashtrays, arcane office equipment, bowling balls, electric toothbrushes, passenger airline seats, leather football helmets, and assorted live animals. A good Props Guy will have the Ark of the Maltese Falcon on set before the lighting guys even show up.
Not as visible as the Props Guy, but no less essential, is Wardrobe. Armed with maximum credit at TJ Maxx, Wardrobe knows you mean “salmon” when you demand a “coral-colored” button-down shirt. Though there are many perils inherent to this critical position, there is no greater challenge for Wardrobe than preventing the Writer from taking off with that “coral-colored” shirt that fits him just right.
The person you want to be tight with on set is the Director, who is easily identified by an excessive waving of hands. The Director underscores his or her absolute authority by demanding that a perfect take be shot “one more time.” When the production ends, it is the Director’s solemn duty to high-five every member of the crew.
This sounds exhausting because it is exhausting. One thirty-second spot requires the laser-focus of an army of professionals, many of which have spent the last 24-hours exceeding the yearly-recommended allowance of Pringles. But it’s worth it because shooting a TV spot really is “the fun part” as opposed to, say, writing a blog post.