Friday, March 20, 2015

Let's be careful out there.

One of my first projects as a baby director was a spot I offered to finance and shoot for a friend of a friend. It was a pretty ambitious production –– a post-apocalyptic story involving a golfer in a gyrocopter. 

At one point, I wanted to give some notes to the actor, so I walked from where I’d been standing by the camera toward the flying contraption he was sitting in. 

I didn’t notice that the blades were spinning. 

Okay, I did, but I was concentrating on my shots and the stuff I wanted to talk about with the actor. Between the angle of the blades and the speed they were turning, I was about to be decapitated. 

If you think walking into the spinning blades
is scary, imagine flying the damn thing.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t die. I got about ten feet before I was tackled to the ground by my Assistant Director. Among other things, the AD is the person who keeps the set safe. 

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been reading a bit about Randall Miller, the director of ‘Midnight Rider’, and how he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter for the death of Sarah Jones, the camera assistant who was killed when a train unexpectedly plowed into the set they’d built on a train track. A lot of what's being written makes it sound as if filmmakers are cynical taskmasters who will put people’s lives at stake in order to get a shot.

I don’t know Randall Miller or any of the other people involved in making that film, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t want Sarah Jones to die. And no, not just because they had more filming to do. 

But here’s what happens. 

'Burning Passion', a pretty ambitious
(and kind of dangerous) short film I directed.
A film is a project. A gloriously fun and exciting project, full of potential and fraught with unexpected complications. 

If you hire well, everybody on the project –– even the people who really only stand to benefit financially, like the guy who drives the motor home and the people who put up the lights –– everybody gets excited about this thing you’re making. We all pull together. 

And so when it comes to making a shot a little better, heck yes we want to do that. 

"Should we shoot the dream sequence on the bridge?" Yes. "There’s a train coming. Can we get one more take?" Yes. If we take the rig down and put it back up, we’ll lose the light or fall behind. 

My brother hates flying. He once explained to me why he was more afraid of take offs than landings. “When you’re landing,” he says, "the pilot wants to be on the ground. So he’s less likely to pull up if something goes sideways.”

It’s the AD’s responsibility to not only be aware of the safety issues, but to make them clear to every single person on the set. We have what's called a Safety Meeting every time we’re doing anything that might put anyone in harm’s way, whether it’s working with a cat that might scratch an actor or a candle on a mantel that might fall over and set fire to the chair. 

Yeah, when you're not shooting real bikers wielding real knives or creating a gag to look like flaming ejaculate (both of which I'm proud to say I've done) the safety meetings can be pretty annoying. We’re excited to make this thing. We don’t want to freak out because we’re filming a five-year-old holding a sparkler, but you know what? Somebody needs to. 

I wanted real bikers. I got real bikers.
That’s why when you hire an AD, yes, you want the person who’s going to be excited to work on your masterpiece and do everything possible to make it better. But if your plane is headed for the ground, you want the pilot who’s going to get it onto the ground, quickly and safely. Even better, you want an AD who does the things that keep the plane from going out of control in the first place.

I suppose I was fortunate to have learned that lesson early on when my AD quite literally saved my life. I hope my writing is dramatic enough to make you think seriously about it.

Brian Belefant is a copywriter turned director currently rooting around for his next assignment. Please call (503) 715 2852 or email belefant@me.com. 

Post Script: I sent a draft of this blog post to Laura Nisbet Peters, one of the finest (and funniest) Assistant Directors I know. She offered the following thought: 

"I’ve been in situations like that. The weirdness of it all is that the guy who hires you, and who may or may not hire you later, is the guy to whom you have to say no. Yes, the AD is the safety rep, but the director and the producers are his/her bosses. Accidents that shouldn’t have happened serve as the ammo you need for when you are alone standing your ground with only your tiny sling shot.”

Are you listening?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A magnificent commercial. Read this before you try to do something like it.


A beautiful piece of video showed up in my Facebook feed the other day. But before I share it with you, I feel it’s my duty to give you a little background.

Any piece of communication has two components –– the rational and the emotional. The rational component is the message. What you want people to believe. The reason why.

But what makes a piece of communication amazing is always –– always –– the emotional bit. Not the message, but the way it’s delivered.

Remember Apple’s ‘1984’ commercial? (Probably not. You weren’t even born in 1984, were you?) Created by Chiat/Day (where I used to work as a copywriter, by the way), it’s still held up as one of the –– if not the –– greatest television spots ever made. What was the message? Apple’s new computer is going to change the world.

Yawn.

It’s exactly the same strategy that every single computer manufacturer has used for every single new product introduction ever.

There are tons of really forgettable ways that message could have been –– and has been –– delivered. Microsoft’s Surface introduction comes to mind. Samsung’s ‘Next Big Thing’ campaign, too. I’m sure there are other good examples, but, well, like I said they’re mostly forgettable.

The way Apple chose to do it in 1983 –– having a blonde chick heave a sledge hammer at a TV screen –– that was the amazing part. (It also helped that the Macintosh happened to be truly revolutionary, but that’s the subject of a different post.)

Every once in a while, somebody who realizes the truth of what I just said will go, “Well, if the  emotional component is the part that really matters, why should I even bother with the rational bit? I mean, who needs a strategy, anyway?”

You do.

Little reason: Because your competitors are staking claims and not to do so would be stupid. 

Medium reason: Because knowing what you’re trying to communicate rationally will liberate your creative teams to come up with an amazing way to do it.

Big reason: Because nobody knows. Seriously. Nobody can consistently and reliably create amazing emotional bits, especially in the absence of rational bits. 

Sure, there are a few geniuses who are pretty good at it. And they have a better record at making amazing stuff than most. But in spite of what every single ad agency tells every single client, it’s impossible to control for all the variables or to know what’s going to resonate. 

Don’t believe me? Then explain to me why the video for Gangnam Style managed to accumulate more than two billion views on YouTube while the follow up video for the same artist, directed by the same director, and benefitting from the all the press and fame and confidence and revenue of the first, couldn’t come close?

Please. Whatever you do, don’t abandon strategy and attempt to make a spot for your version of baked beans like this exquisite little piece of perfection: 




Because biggest reason: It’s not a commercial for beans. It was written and directed by Animator Alvise Avati and produced by Animation Director Eamonn Butler as a commercial for Cinesite, demonstrating their creature animation skills. 

Oh look. A strategy: “We do really good creature animation.”

Now that you know what this video was actually created to do, go back and read through my list of reasons. Suddenly, strategy makes a whole lot more sense, doesn’t it?

Brian Belefant is a copywriter and director currently looking for his next assignment. Please call (503) 715 2852 or email belefant@me.com.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Why simple is not so simple.

It's one of the basic tenets of advertising: simple messages communicate more powerfully than complicated ones. 

And yet.

Back when I was a baby copywriter, we used to bitch about how the creative briefs we were given kept getting bigger and bigger. Yes, even at a storied ad agency like Chiat/Day, a place famous for creating simple, powerful advertising. Sometimes the brief for a single ad or commercial would run to four pages.

Whenever we were given a brief, the first thing most of us in the creative department would do is flip through it, skipping over all the background and demographic stuff to the one important line item: What’s the single most compelling thing we want readers/viewers to take away? A simple answer there would mean we’d been given a good assignment. Not because the solution would necessarily be easy, but because even an idiot would be able to determine whether we’d met the criteria. 

It’s hard to keep an assignment simple. Clients who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an ad feel as if they’re being asked to pony up for a Ferrari, but not being told whether it will even turn left.

(I once had to work on a billboard that had –- and I’m not making this up –– a list of eight things that the brief said needed to be communicated. There’s a general rule with billboards that you don’t want to go over nine words. Which, as the account person nervously joked, gave us the freedom to throw in a gratuitous “the” or “and.” My partner and I actually nailed it, but unfortunately the headline we wrote had twelve words, so our solution was killed before it ever got shown to the client.)

That was years ago. Since then, media has become lots more expensive. And the vast majority of clients have become accustomed to being regularly deferred to by agencies who are so terrified to lose the business that they refuse to have an opinion, much less take a stand. 

All of which adds up to an advertising landscape that’s fetid.

And then there’s this. 

Forget how dazzlingly funny this is. That’s bonus. The genius is that the very structure requires the spot to say only one thing. The single most compelling message. 

I look at this spot and I see not just a brilliant creative solution, but also a healthy agency/client relationship. I know. That's two things. 

See? Even I can’t help but want to make two points.

Way to go, Martin Agency.

Brian Belefant is a copywriter turned director currently looking for his next assignment. Please call (503) 715 2852 or email belefant@me.com