How To Go Commercial Without Selling Out
See How Stutterer Director Benjamin Cleary and Five Other Short Filmmakers Made Art Out Of Advertisements
When you’re not Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, or Terrence Malick, it’s hard to imagine getting the permission (and budgets) to make commercials that are as artistically-challenging as the films you felt born to make. But if these auteurs are making commercials, then there is little doubt that doing advertisement assignments have become a downright necessity for most working filmmakers today.
But do not despair. Projects that promise to pay the bills don’t have to become a soul-sucking compromise. Just look at the five short filmmakers below. All on this list are award-winning short filmmakers (including two Oscarwinners) who have also done advertisements as a side gig. As can be seen below, the true professionals find a way to make every assignment, commercial or otherwise, something to be proud of!
Benjamin Cleary — Lamp 1047
We’ve covered Benjamin Cleary before when dissecting the visual geniusbehind his 2016 Oscar-winner Stutterer. While that film felt personal in many ways, this commercial for the Electricity Supply Board of Ireland takes place in (and is very much about) Cleary’s hometown of Dublin.
Completely from the perspective of a solitary light post, we hear a genuine and effective voice over about this particular character’s day-to-day life. This unlikely metaphor for the Irish spirit finds a way to work into your heart by the end, and will make you believe in the goodness and beauty of life itself. Cleary was given full writing and directing duties on this project, resulting in a singular vision that is hard to find in most mainstream ads. There’s something so earnest and ethereal in the way Cleary chooses to shoot Dublin, capturing its warm, inviting tones just after sunset. The ad even manages to pack in a satisfying arc worthy of a Pixar short.
Watch the ad here.
Ivan Barge — The Rugby Is Here
Ivan Barge became a major figure in short film after the release of his humorous and touching Madam Black, a sensation that placed in over 150 festivals and won more than 40 awards.
The Rugby Is Here is Barge’s version of a quick gag commercial, but it works so well given Ivan’s expert economy. In just 30 seconds, Barge sets up an entire world for us. Relying largely on atmospheric tension (even dread), camera shots from the perspective of an unknown stranger follow the likable-enough protagonist down empty, silent rows of garage parking. Like all good commercials, Barge sets us up first with a genre expectation— a thriller, or perhaps even horror. When the modern horror expectation is then met and upended with the reveal of a rugby player in the back seat of the man’s car, we are left with nothing more or less than comedic relief. It’s both a silly commercial and an odd angle from which to promote a TV package, but what cannot be denied is that it matches the off-beat but confident comedic choices found in Barge’s short film work.
Asif Kapadia — The Tale Of Thomas Burberry
If it’s not already apparent from his short film work (or his Oscar-winning documentary), Asif Kapadia is a real visionary. His talent is on full display in one of most gratuitous and excessive (in a good way) displays of cinematic filmmaking for a promotional.
Starring Domnhall Gleeson (himself a short filmmaker) and many other recognizable faces (Dominic West and Sienna Miller make extended appearances), this short film commercial does exactly as the title suggests. The tale of Burberry’s founder is told with superb flourish in just under four minutes. Kapadia and company borrow many teaser trailer conventions, often finding a way to hit the exactly right beats, cue-ing the proper music, giving us the expected inter-titles. The commercial specifically tailors itself after an Oscar prestige picture, selling itself to us (literally) as a European biopic, a World War II epic, a classy romantic triangle and an adventure film.
To further convince us of the project’s validity and power, scenes take place everywhere from the trenches to the skies and everywhere in between, showing that Burberry really wanted to spare no expense on the project. The teaser for a movie never made (at least not yet) is as beautiful as you hope it’d be, and only convinces us that if Asif really wanted to turn this into a $50-million studio film, he would get the job done just fine.
Craig Rosenthal — A Child’s Eyes
Car commercials are never easy. With each passing year, we seem to get more of them, and it’s hard not to get cynical over all the cheap ways car companies attempt to get our sympathies. But Craig Rosenthal, being the sensitive short film director of Shanghai Love Market, sells a Mercedes-Benz with a sentimentality that never feels gross or exploitative.
Part of the reason it works so well is Rosenthal’s real graceful touch with the direction and tone. Voice over is saved until the very end, a relief considering voice overs are often the most insufferable aspects of a bad car commercial. Instead, Rosenthal spends a majority of the ad creating a real tangible, ethereal childhood we all feel we can fits ourselves into, shooting each memory with grace, simplicity and a Terrence Malick-indebted eye for beauty and framing.
Even if you do find yourself rolling your eyes at the final reveal, Rosenthal’s minimalist approach to this car commercial at least made mainstream viewers have to pay attention to the screen rather than passively take it all in.
Rafael Bolliger — What Happens When You Don’t Pay Your Employees
Rafael Bolliger surprised everybody when he made this untitled long take of a steam roller demolishing a small luxury car. What many casual viewers did not realize was that he’d been surprising audiences long before with his short film work. While this commercial left many scratching their heads at first, it was eventually revealed to be a surprise viral marketing video for the European insurance company Allianz.
The commercial is shot in the style of a found-footage film, with a faux-interview with an outdoor construction worker being interrupted by this show-stopping moment. The disturbing immediacy of the camerawork here brought to mind the initial Cloverfield trailer, also an untitled advertisement, that revolutionized viral marketing in film. We like Bolliger’s commitment to the experiment in this short, giving us something between a short doc and an avant-garde piece that could go in a modern museum exhibition.
The bravest part of the direction to us is in how it never tells the audience how to think or feel about what is happening. No reaction shots are ever provided, no overriding narrative ever explained. It’s the sort of bold, uncompromising move one would be more expecting to find in an actual short film than a commercial.
Matt Kirkby — Funeral
Kirkby, whose The Phone Call we love so much, also works for-hire under the RSA (Ridley & Tony Scott’s production company) banner. While this commercial for the Japanese mobile service i-mode, like Rugby, could be classified as a commercial in the silly Super Bowl ad variety, we think this short has at least enough cinematic references on its mind to be taken more seriously.
Part of what makes it stand out from the boring and out of touch is how long it gives itself to set up the joke. It’s established right away that we are, in fact, with a family at a funeral. The assemblage of patient, steady close ups of the grieving family in all of their black suits and dresses directly evokes something like the Corleone family, and a gravitas that one is expected to associate with that. After about 20 seconds, Kirkby’s editing direction has been so assured and earnest, that we are starting to believe in this touching moment, though no word has been spoken and we know nothing of the context.
So when the joke comes and the deceased’s ashes fly back in the faces of the family members, the moment is genuinly surprising, and all the more funny for it. It may not be the most inspired commercial ever made, but clearly all of Kirkby’s strengths and sensibilities were put into practice for a job that, from the outside, could be seen as just a cash grab.
Watch the ad here.