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Making A Commercial - Preproduction


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If you haven't checked out my Coke commercial, check it out here.

Coke spot, concept

I dig old pin-up art. In particular this one artist named Gil Elvgren. He's the Norman Rockwell of pin-up. He could capture a pose better than most animators. And I've always loved the ads of Coke girls at places like Johnnie Rockets (LA burger joint). So the concept is that a girl in one of the paintings comes to life.

That's the concept.

But where do you take it from there? How do you take a one note idea and flesh it out so it resonates and pulls people in?

First thing I did was pitch that basic idea to people. And everytime I did people would nod back 'yeah, I totally know those Coke girls.' That is called emotional real estate. The hardest part of any story is getting the audience to connect. If you can hook them immediately, and you do this by making things specific and identifiable, then you've grasped them. But holding them is where it gets tricky.

What sells products? Story telling is one thing, and advertising is another. Combining both seamlessly is the true challenge. No matter what story I'm going to tell its going to be a huge time commitment. So why not make it the best you can make it? Make it A+. I'd rather not do something than half ass it.


What is the branding of Coke? Its American. Its nostaligic. Its magical. Its a company like Disney...they've been around forever and are iconic. Coke is a loved product and that means that the spot needs to be true to those qualities.

And who buys Coke? Who buys most of anything?


Women shop, in general. They're the ones that pick which stories and products get viewed by their children. So it is really important that the spot speaks to Mom's...makes them feel warm and fuzzy.

Yes, storytelling is a magic trick.

Its a manipulation. Humans love to be manipulated. A joke is a manipulation. We set an expectation then twist it. That's where the laugh comes from. An action scene is a manipulation. We know it the hero isn't really going to get hurt becuase nothing in the movie is real. But if the magic trick is pulled off, then we believe the world and characters are real and we buy it. This spot needs to weave a web where we feel good about the Coke. Mind you, Coke is liquidfide sugar. So what is the benefit to it? Why would a mom buy it? Because it has nostalgic qualities we associate with it.

We've laid the objective. To make Coke benefit the viewer. Knowing that, we can start to find the story...

Coke Spot, Story

How does one tell a good story?

Its got to be something that resonates. Its got to be primal. We all want food, love, sex, survival or gaining higher social status. Those are really the only motivations that hit us. A story about a man who wants to fall in love with his goldfish will play in about 1 theatre. Once. No one can relate. But stories where the underdog gains a higher social status, or gets the girl, or saves the village, or saves the world. We can relate to that. So in our little Coke spot what is instantly going to capture the audience?

Relief from the heat.

We can all relate to dying of heat and needing a cold frosty beverage. That's the product, so the hotter it is, the more primal the protagonists need.

A cute little girl.

Everyone feels sympathy for a needy kid. Put in a cute little girl and everyone wants to see her get what she wants. Hell, Walt Disney used that formula in pretty much all his movies.

An underdog.

Everyone feels they're the little guy. Look at any great story and the protagonist is the little guy. Even if he's the man (Indiana Jones, Spiderman, Will Smith in any movie), the hero is the underdog socially in the world they encompass. Indy was always getting trumped by the Nazis....Spiderman was a dork at school (if he was a cool kid at school the movie wouldn't have been relatable), and Will Smith always has to answer to his superiors even though he knows more than them. They're underdogs and we love them! So this spot needs an underdog we can root for.

With those 3 components in place, it seemed logical that the hero wants a Coke because its hot. Then has to decide to give his Coke to the little girl, then gets rewarded with a new Coke.

Now it wasn't as easy as that to get to that point. I toyed with making the girl in the painting be a little fond of the hero. Thought he was cute. I also had the guy solely see the magical girl in the painting so the waitress could deliver the punchline. Essentially I thought of every permutation....but in the end, if you allow yourself plenty of time to explore (develop) the story, the cream rises to the top.

I created an animatic (animated storyboards that help us filmmakers understand what the timing and filmmaking will be).  This looks like a rough edit.  It uses sketches instead of final footage so we can discover what storytelling issues need to be addressed BEFORE we spend the expensive time on set.

After I had my 1st pass of the animatic, I showed this to everyone. EVERYONE. I want to make sure it reads, is entertaining, and most of all is fun. People laugh and smile while watching it, so the story is now bullet proof (it could be different, but given the story I want to tell, this is the strongest version).

Now comes the fun part. I've got to find all the 'tools' I'm gonna need to tell this story. Cast, lighting, location, sound design, effects design, musical score, color palette.

Coke Spot, Locations

Locations and sets are key to telling a great story. They set the stage and support the actors on it. Think about it. If the sets and locations aren't right, it pulls you out of the tale. Cheesy sets, a la Land of the Lost, tell you up front its a cheap production and even if the acting is top notch, we have already made our minds up that its cheese.

For the Coke spot I need to create a nostalgic feel. Locations were scouted for 3 days all over L.A. and we ended up taking the first place I heard about. The Quality Cafe. Tons of movies have shot there, specifically because its got an old 1940's vibe. Wood walls, red leather booths, large front windows. The hard part is going to be dressing it. As of now its empty inside. I've got to pick the right salt shakers and ketchup bottles and silverware. I've got to go to real diners and see what kind of people eat there. See how the mood is. What's the level of activity? I then need to recreate all the on film so that it feels like a slice of life.

The second day of shooting we're requiring a greenscreen stage. So my team and I need to locate a stage and find the best rate. There's nothing artistic about that. Its ironic that one location is so important and the other isn't.

Coke Spot, Mood

Mood and Tone are the top two things a good director thinks about. Within 30 seconds of seeing a film (opening credits aside) I can tell if its going to blow me away or suck a big one. The first impression is everything, and the movies that are great throughout have great openings.


Because the tone and mood are clearly defined.

Think about it.


One of my favorite films. The music is somber and downplayed. The lighting is very natural. Its dark, a little scary and a little magical. We can sense something is afoot. The table is set tonally and nothing in the film bumps on it. Spielberg knew his tone and mood and stuck to it.

In the trailer to E.T., they're flat out selling the tone and mood. Notice how they tease the audience with the mood. Spielberg knew at the end of the day he had a cheesy kid film about an alien and family dysfunction. So instead of making it all shiny and happy and sanitized, he made it dark and scary and mysterious. Check out all the shots of mist and fog in there. Look at all the use of black as a color. The tone and mood contrast the lighter points of the story that could have turned into Velveeta.

Princess Bride
Just watch the very opening. First thing we hear is a coughing kid. Then we see him playing a lame video game. Fred Savage is glum and mom sets up Grandpa is coming. Fred states how Gramps is old fashioned and then they get a big joke. Grandpa is full of life and dashes into the room and pinches Fred's cheek. Its screaming at you to laugh at it, but its still funny. Its charming. Rob Reiner kept that tone throughout.


Van Helsing
Whew...It opens with black and white of villagers storming Frankensteins castle. Its very dramatic, and a little scary. But the rest of the film is a Gothic video game. There are no physics and lots of comedy. I didn't get that from the first minute. Inconsistent tone.

Chicken Little

It starts out as a farce on Disney storybook films, then veers off into Airplane style jokes, then sentimental subplots with a father and son, then aliens attack in an action bonanza. NO ONE knew what the film was meant to be. I know half the people who worked on it, and they still don't know. Had they stuck to a tone and mood and edited out every idea that didn't support that, it could have worked (aliens in chicken movies...why?)

Check the opening out. It starts as some Ren Faire piece, then has cheesy acting, then some groovy David Bowie song. No humor, just cheese. I'm a huge Jim Henson fan, but I hate this film. I don't think he had a good handle on the tone. He wanted it to be dark but couldn't resist having the pun filled colorful humor he's known for. The Muppet movie keeps its tone (heart on the sleeve, vaudeville inspired jokes), but Labyrinth...its all over the place. It just doesn't work.

So as a storyteller, if you don't set the table and then stick to it, you're gonna lose your audience. You don't serve Mexican food, then halfway through dinner switch it up to French. That'll just piss off everyone, especially the French.

So for the Coke spot, the only way the magical aspect will work is if the world is grounded. If its a wacky, stylized world then the girl in the painting will just seem like a given. But if the world is natural and somewhat mundane, then the magical aspects have something to contrast with. Spielberg did this well with ET, Close Encounters, Poltergeist and Jaws. He stylized the world in a Norman Rockwell way. Made it feel mundane and then when the fantasy popped.

In college I asked Brad Bird (director of Incredibles and Iron Giant) how he maintained a tone and mood throughout the piece. He looked at me and simply said 'you just do'. I think it comes down to really understanding the story. My favorite films adapt a film making style that is essentially the POV of the main characters. Annie Hall has a film making style that's eccentric and neurotic, much like Alvy Singer. Heavenly Creatures is fast and spastic, much like the main teenage girls in that. Grease is bubblegum and sexual, just like the teenagers discovering sex depicted in that film.

A great story adapts to the mood of the protagonists.

In the Coke Spot, I'm going to aim for really selling the charm and magic of the world. The protagonist is the Coke. Its nostalgic and wholesome and American. Its a Norman Rockwell painting. So the mood needs to be charming, a celebration of day to day working class American life. I can accomplish that with lots of faded colors and antiques. I plan on using vintage props and bathing the set in a diffused glow. I see dust in the air. I see light beams streaking throughout the place. I hear the hum of the fans...the sizzle of the stove...the passing of cars and trucks outside. Its got to feel hot and realistic but with a slight bit of style and whimsy. Balancing all that comes down to feeling the story and the tone and the mood.

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