By Ken Bradbury
It has all the charm of making sausage. When you see a commercial flash on your TV screen you might think, “My! How glamorous!” Actually, not very. It takes about three hours to shoot a TV ad that runs for 27 seconds, and that’s if everything goes well. And believe me, everything seldom goes well.
Here’s a typical and actual day of shooting … you load up the cameraman, the soundman, the director and the actors and head toward the shooting site. This might be a place of business or sometimes it’s in a horse pasture. I have my script memorized, which does absolutely no good at all since the director’s going to change it seven times during the course of the shoot. Let’s take the horse pasture scenario. Here’s what was supposed to happen: I was dressed as an old-time ranch cook who’d ride up on my horse with other cowboys in the background. I’d fall off my horse onto a mattress just off camera, then get up and give a spiel about this great new restaurant called the Chuck Wagon. I’d spent a lot of time on horses so it seemed a simple enough assignment and for four consecutive takes I rode up, fell off, hit the mattress, then we’d cut to the close-up where I’d extoll the virtues of eating in downtown Havana, Illinois. The trouble was, we did five takes and not four. On number five the horses stopped short of the mattress and I fell off anyway. I’m getting too old for this.
Even an errant horse is easy compared to an ice rink. My friend Sylvia Burke and I were shooting a commercial in Springfield that required me to put on a hockey goalie’s outfit and inch out onto the ice to film. Note: I don’t ice skate. Further note: it wouldn’t matter since I was wearing street shoes. Final note: the ice on a hockey rink is even harder than the ground of a horse pasture.
Or some days you load up the camera crew, drive seventy miles, shoot the commercial and then two days later get a call from the tech department saying that a semi had driven by on one of my lines and we’ll have to drive the seventy miles again to re-shoot the scene.
But most of a commercial shooting day is spent doing nothing, simply standing around waiting for the sound man to get the audio correct, the camera guy trying one lens after another, or the sun to come out. That’s right. If you shoot an outdoor scene in natural sunlight then cut to shoot a close-up you have to have the same amount of sun. Otherwise it looks like you’re filming a commercial at two times of day. There’s nothing quite as humorous as looking at a group of grown adults … tech crews, directors, actors … standing in the middle of a parking lot watching the clouds to see when they’ll get their next chance to shoot.
Or last week we were shooting on a fellow’s back porch and his dog became overcome with curiosity and kept walking into the shot. Actually, I thought it was a pretty neat effect but the TV company was afraid they’d have to pay the dog. And birds! You have no idea how much bird noise a microphone can pick up on a warm summer day. A friend of mine who works for another production company says he always keeps a 12-guage shotgun in his trunk. Just before the director shouts, “Action!” he fires off the gun, quietly the cheeps and twitters for maybe the next ten seconds.
Shooting a TV ad with children has its own particular bundle of bugaboos. Little Johnny’s dad may own the company but Little Johnny may not be in any humor to hug his daddy and say, “Gosh I love your used cars, Dad!” after the fourth take. Sometimes little Johnny must be bribed with outlandish promises as a very expensive camera crew stands around waiting for a family counselor to arrive.
Sun we can handle, kids are manageable, and even horses can be dealt with but the only factor that simply cannot be controlled is the sponsor who tells you exactly what to put in the ad, then you shoot it, then he says he changes his mind. I’ve often been tempted to sign up for the nearest conceal and carry course. Dog-gone it, you were the one who wanted this wording … until you saw it on camera! But the sponsor holds all the cards in a situation like this since he’s paying the bills. Seventy miles … re-shoot.
So just a caution as you sit in your easy chair tonight watching some little gal extol the virtues of the latest toothpaste or listen to some old codger revel in the fact that he’s finally found regularity … he’s probably smiling because his horse didn’t dump him onto the ground.