- Directors see Superbowl ads as an interesting and profitable distraction, and some as a unique artistic challenge.
- Stanley Kubrick found deeper value in beer ads, impressed by their ability to create complex impressions in just 30 seconds.
- Filmmakers like Ridley Scott, the Coen Brothers, and Robert Stromberg have found success in creating memorable and impactful Superbowl ads throughout the years.
In a short span, a director and possibly a cinematographer must conceive, map out, block, shoot, and edit incredibly competently in order to pull off a truly memorable and effective ad. The effort is high. The stakes? Well, they are not very significant, the air time they fill is usually skipped over or reserved for a visit to the bathroom.
A beacon in the darkness, Superbowl hype has allowed a narrow gap for ad agencies to put their best foot forward, a single night every year when people actually care about the ads. Standing out is another matter, most ads opting for attractive women degrading themselves, random celebrity cameos, or people falling down for comedic effect. It’s the typical clichés and arbitrary grab bag of ideas that seemingly anyone could make by simply throwing darts blindly at an ad exec’s wall. The finished products, as amusing as they can be, contain as many empty calories as the junk food they are designed to sell.
However, if Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott have any say, all of us cinephiles and snobs are looking at TV commercials the wrong way. Nowhere did Kubrick see a more shining exemplar of excellence than in beer ads. In a 1987 Rolling Stone interview, the secretive director explained his love of American football, and along with it, the obligatory commercials, almost predicting the rise of the multi-million dollar, glitzy Superbowl ad industry. Free of the context of the particular sponsor demands, many directors see it as an interesting and profitable distraction, and some as a movie-making challenge. If you want the secret of true artistry in the medium of film, look to the suds.
Stanley Kubrick’s Filmmaking 101
Director Stanley Kubrick, a photography nut from an early age, was agonizingly keen on the art of cinematography, a theme that ran through every project he ever made, from the prehistoric monolith shot in 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the delicate composition of guerrilla warfare in Full Metal Jacket. According to him, the only unique contribution to the arts that movies ever delivered was editing, each new angle offering a different character’s perspective, many parts of the whole narrative densely stuck together to convey an emotion or theme in a fluid series of images.
To get the mise-en-scene and lighting correct, Kubrick would refilm, re-edit, and even order special lenses from NASA to cobble together his own cameras to film more natural shots in extremely low light, ditching the hackneyed day-for-night technique. Yet for an innovator, he found inspiration in the most unlikely of places.
Living abroad, he had the tapes of weeks-old NFL games air-mailed to his house in Britain, allowing him all the time he wished to study the nuances of the event. What caught his eye was not of the offensive plays but of the beer adverts, Kubrick singling out the Michelob spots in loving detail:
“Forget what they’re doing — selling beer — and it’s visual poetry. Incredible eight-frame cuts. And you realize that in thirty seconds they’ve created an impression of something rather complex. If you could ever tell a story, something with some content, using that kind of visual poetry, you could handle vastly more complex and subtle material.”
There are certain things only a genius could get away with saying, and this was one of them. But in his mind, it was never about the product, but how a montage expresses the subject, in this case, what the product means on many psychological and social levels to consumers.
The director is likely referencing “The Night Belongs to Michelob” advertising campaign of the late eighties which featured licensed rock songs and quick shots of movements, slickly-edited together to show yuppies at play. For Kubrick, the very same constraints that hampered them (the limitations that forced commercials into meager thirty-second slots, pancaked one on top of the other unceremoniously) were what made them great. They needed to be clear to understand without ever uttering a word or being too blunt. They needed to be universally coherent, yet differentiate themselves from the glut of mindless racket. Considering his obsession with detail, his affection is no small compliment. Sadly, film scholars are still in search of Kubrick’s critical analysis on Spuds MacKenzie and the Budweiser frogs.
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The “Greatest Commercial” Almost Got Rejected
The soaring praise heaped on the beer ads in the eighties was due to the work of dozens of talented TV and ad directors, pushing ads forward, directors like Ridley Scott. Oh, and he made some pretty good films too. Before mastering the art of the chest-bursting Xenomorph in Alien, or perfecting an iconic cinematic art style in Blade Runner, Scott labored thanklessly without his name front and center in the opening credits. The job of an ad director is a precarious one, but, in certain circumstances (looking at you, Michael Bay), a director with a keen eye and sense of timing can get the call up to the major leagues, catapulting them onto the next level.
Scott would make a triumphant return in 1984 with his now legendary (yes, we just called a commercial legendary) Macintosh commercial known as “1984.” The ad is less effective for explaining the product or its usefulness than it is for sheer production value, flashy movie-like imagery, and an appeal to highbrow, literary references, the narrator promising prospective customers that “1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’” The commercial is perfect in execution except for an end title card mistitling the George Orwell dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four to save space on the screen.
Dreamed up by the Chiat/Day ad agency, they harangued Ridley Scott to direct. It’s ads like these that show the problem with ambitious commercials that transcend their usual role as glorified, pixellated billboards. With high-concepts and high-production value comes a high budget. Directors, lighting, studio rentals, editors, effects, and extras ain’t cheap.
Initial reactions so shocked Apple execs they nearly scrapped the ad due to a then-astronomical budget, Apple was still a largely obscure player in American culture without a cult of fans in tow expecting the glossy ad treatment. Safe to say, they made the right choice, regardless of the $900,000 price tag, that sum coming to about 2.6 million in today’s money. Based on the 38-9 beatdown of Washington by the Raiders, that ad was the only dramatic moment of the whole day.
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Who Needs an Oscar When You Have Car Ads?
No strangers to the art of the Superbowl ad, the Coen Brothers’s 2017 “Easy Driver” ad borrowed from the iconography and legacy of the film Easy Rider to convince baby boomers to pay out for a new Mercedes-Benz. This was hardly their first foray into the advertising space, creating an earlier ad for a tax-filing service in 2002 for the NFL championship game. That same year also saw the debut of Friday Night Lights director Peter Berg’s 2017 Hyundai promo.
Capping off the fifty-first Superbowl spectacle, Berg took a more personal, documentary-styled approach to the rather stale genre, breaking the fourth wall. Berg admitted he was stressed by the ordeal, telling ABC News, “It has to be done by about halfway through the second quarter,” leaving little time for editing and formal approval from the US Department of Defense, the NFL, and the corporate sponsor, Hyundai. Offering a cathartic end to a dramatic game, the Hyundai spot featured veterans filmed during the game as if to act as a palate cleanser to put the game in perspective and emphasize real-world events and real sacrifice … and to hawk cars.
Not to be left out, two-time Oscar winner for Best Art Direction, Robert Stromberg, took up the challenge thrown down by the masters before him, relishing the burden of crafting the Mercedez-Benz spot. Okay, let’s not get goosebumps just yet, they’re just hyping overpriced German cars with faulty fuel pumps, but these directors’ interest shows that the normally mundane medium of the 30-second commercial still holds allure for artists to flex their muscles and branch out.
For those learning the craft, there is no better school for mastering the foundations of filmmaking. In the case of some directors, their diversion into TV commercials might be the most impressive work on their resume. Most directors will never make their own Citizen Kane. Fewer will craft a thirty-second ad that embeds itself in people’s heads for forty years. Both are quite an accomplishment when you think about it.