A misunderstood part of the advertising business, between tech advances and raw necessity, the production of advertising is undergoing a supply chain disruption – Faris Yakob considers the situation.
The British photographer and film director Greg Williams shot the actress Zendaya for the October 2021 issue of British Vogue and posted on TikTok about how he had got the image. He explained that the photograph was taken on her phone in her residence in Atlanta, using a piece of software called CLOS that allowed him to take control of the camera on her phone and provide audio direction via the speaker from England.
The picture taken “over the internet on her phone became a full page spread in Vogue”. Williams is no stranger to technological innovation, he was the first person to use a RED ONE camera to capture a still image for a magazine, a shot of Megan Fox for the cover of Esquire in 2009. This got me thinking about phone cameras and remote production in general.
I spent most of my career in advertising agencies as a strategist and so felt very removed from the production process in general. (Hands up if you are a strategist that has been on a shoot. I’m going to put my neck out and say there are very few hands up right now). The sequential agency process and separation of departments means there are times when you write a strategy and a brief and then six months or more later get to see the work. We always recommend you keep hold of the brief throughout its journey into the world, and make friends in creative and production, but often that isn’t practical, or welcomed, which is a shame.
Production is a complex and very creative part of the business, getting things made within very specific budgetary and logistical parameters. It is little understood outside the industry that advertising agencies do not make television commercials per se, that the production is outsourced to production companies for the most part. A well acknowledged highlight of the job for creatives is being ‘on production’, where they are treated like clients by said companies, sometimes in fabulous locations, or at least being put up at Shutters in LA.
As a nomadic creative consultancy, my partner and I tend to work mostly upstream with clients, agencies and media companies. We don’t tend to make films but during the pandemic we had the opportunity to do so. We were approached with the possibility, developed a concept and managed to convince the tourism board of Nashville to give us both a budget and to leverage their access in order to make a film to inspire the music industry in Music City. A very significant part of the Nashville economy is predicated on massive music tours, which employ thousands of people across various jobs, in order to take artists on the road. That work all vanished in an instant and it was a very dark time for people who work mostly as freelance producers, videographers, engineers, stage hands and in innumerable other crucial functions that, as with the Hollywood model, come together for many months to put on shows all over the USA and the world but have no job security.
Our partners at Em.co liked our concept and we hired AAF’s copywriter of the year in Nashville (shout out to the excellent wordsmith Matt Burch) to write a script, found a husband and wife team of music videographers who could shoot it, and got permissions to enter various venues and locations that were eerily silent during those difficult days.
My partner Rosie felt strongly that the voiceover had to have very broad appeal and so we approached Dolly Parton, who agreed to donate her time to do it, with Tim McGraw (and the songwriter, Lori McKenna) donating the usage of the hit Humble and Kind as the backing track. We did the entire production remotely and it came together beautifully. I was reminded of this by the Williams TikTok because I wonder how much production could be done from home, or wherever, and how much that would open up new opportunities and shrink the required budgets.
Shooting commercials on phones is of course not a new thing. When I was at Naked Communications we collaborated with the agency formerly known as Lowe Worldwide to launch the N-Series of Nokia smartphones. The N93 was a video focused phone and Gary Oldman agreed to make a film called Donut to promote it, shot entirely on the device, in 2006.
More recently, the #shotoniPhone campaign has been a long running success for Apple, creating staggering imagery that has been placed in outdoor media all over the world. Of course, nothing in advertising is exactly what it seems, any food stylist can tell you that. The images are shot on iPhone but every ad contains the disclaimer “additional equipment and software used” because the phones are sometimes in drones, or equipped with Cine lenses with wireless follow focus on a gimbal attached to a motorized remote control four-wheeled skateboard, and edited in post to make sure they are of the quality required to represent Apple to the public.
For the launch of iPhone 13, which features a new ‘Cinematic mode’ that can supposedly mimc the focusing of professional cameras, Apple got Oscar-winning film director Kathryn Bigelow to shoot a commercial that mashes up five different film genres, highlighting the device’s strengths for movie making. In the inevitable behind the scenes video, Bigelow big ups the phone, saying: “It’s a completely integrated process. The iPhone doesn’t require any ancillary pieces of equipment.” Keen observers will notice the ad still includes the disclaimer that “additional hardware and software” were used in the production.
As the industry continues to evolve, new supply chains for what we now call content have emerged. Influencers are not really influencing so much as producing content and deploying it to their audiences, a blend of production and media companies. As consumer technology continues to get better, and budgets continue to be restrained, it’s likely that remote production will become more common, since we have learnt it is possible during the pandemic, especially for the ‘content’ churned out at high frequency for social media. Super Bowl spots in the USA are the most expensive film, on a per second basis, in the world, even excluding the ever increasing media costs.
If remote production becomes the norm, I imagine that fewer scripts will open on a beach in the tropics, but perhaps that’s just me being cynical.