Toronto-based director of photography Mark Bone recently published a video talking about the different aspects that are involved in creating a TV commercial production from the perspective of a working director.
This video can be incredibly enlighting, however, it certainly does not reflect the way every commercial is made worldwide and not even necessarily how every high-budget TV commercial is produced.
It is important to remember that on some productions the director is picked in advance (without a long scrutiny process, for example, if the company already worked with him/her before), on the other hand, there are many cases where the director is far less involved in the pre-production creative process and is given a fixed script to work from by the agency/client.
With that said, there is still much to take from this video if you ever considered working on a large budget TV commercial, and even if you stay on the lower budget side of things (especially for the ever-growing online commercials market) there might be important takeaways from this video.
How a TV commercial is made
The following is the breakdown of some of the main aspects of what happens up to and including the actual shoot (there are of course many aspects after the shoot itself but Bone does not go into those in this video).
Behind any TV commercial, there is a client which is looking to sell a product or get more brand awareness. Typically commercials will “begin their lives” when a company will approach an ad or creative agency (on many occasions more than one initially) to bring an idea into an on-screen commercial.
During this process, the agency will go through multiple pitchings suggesting different ideas to the client which will eventually need to decide on a campaign (usually the agency will have multiple types of content created for a campaign including stills, video, graphics and more to be distributed across several platforms and channels.
The next stage involves the ad/creative agency putting out a brief. This document explains the project in broad detail and this is the stage where a specific production company and the director are being picked to produce the commercial.
This is a crucial point – in many cases, a production company or a director are chosen based on a reel which is a short video that showcases one’s abilities to potential clients (typically made from a short segment of past works, you can think of it as a movie trailer – if it’s good the agency will want to see more).
Bone suggests that you try and be original and create a reel that will be unique to your style – don’t try to copy other people’s work – agencies view so many reels that they need to see a unique style they can relate to otherwise your work will just get lost in the crowd.
After the agency went over all the reels they will pick a small number and production companies/directors to brief in more depth about the product.
The Directors Treatment
Here is where the director comes into the picture. He creates his own brief (a text document with images and illustrations or even a short video) where he or she explains their vision for the project, how they are going to shoot it, what style and look they have for the commercial, and why they are the right people for this campaign.
After all the directors send their “treatment” documents a final selection is done by the agency and that is presented to the client who has the final call.
In this point Bone mentions another aspect of the high-end commercial business – agents. Typically the agency will not talk directly to a director but work through an agent. This is not always the case but in the U.S. some of the more busy commercial directors do work with agents which should help them get those high-paying jobs.
If you got the job – congratulations, but now you got to come up with a full script for the agency. This script needs to be approved by the agency and the client before the actual pre-production work can begin.
The actual work typically starts with a location brief. A location scout will search for a proper location for the commercial (this can be in a specific city, country, or even all over the world) to match the brief set out by the director. In most cases, the director will eventually go and scout some of the top locations to choose the final one.
Next, there is the casting brief – this needs to explain exactly who are the actors will appear in the commercial in as much detail as possible so the casting agents can find the best talents. Here the director might also sit through castings of dozens and sometimes hundreds of potential actors to choose the ones that will appear in the final commercial.
This is of course not just up to the director or the production company – the agency needs to approve and in many cases, the client might have something to say as well.
This is where the director and/or production company sits with the agency and discusses the actual production in detail.
Next comes the “tech scout” where the director, gaffer, cinematographer, and other key people in the production go to the location and plan the actual technical aspects of the shoot, moves, gear, lighting setup, etc. In this part, the assistant director is crucial as they have the job of scheduling up everything.
Choosing wardrobe and hair is also typically done prior to the shoot to make the shooting itself as “clean” as possible with little last-minute decision making.
The final pre-production meeting involves all the key people from the production and the agency (and client) going over everything that will happen during the shoot. This meeting can be very long and involve dozens of people.
Before the shoot itself, there is some time dedicated to camera prep to test that the gear is working properly. There is also a lot of things going on behind the scenes at this stage planning and working on different logistical aspects of the shoot from getting permits to arranging food for the shooting.
Bone explains that when the shoot arrives it quite often when some of the most ridiculous requests start coming from the agency or from the client (like a lens company that prohibited the director from shooting any lens flares in the commercial stating that it makes their lens look bad).
The shoot day (or typically days) can be complex with dozens of people working on location but this of course depends on the specific commercial.
Going through all these stages might look overwhelming (and it is) especially for those who go through this for the first time and coming from much smaller productions, but it is still a very competitive business and probably the best way to get started is to work as an assistant in one of those larger productions and slowly learn how they work.
We have a full section devoted to everything that has to do with being a professional photographer/videographer called “photography as a business” here on LensVid.