Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Lost Art of Commercials and Music Videos

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The WAG and SAG-AFTRA recently went on strike for better benefits, profit sharing, and working conditions. Partly, this was due to tech bros and venture capitalists ravaging the industry. The core of the strike was an attempt to find a way to make being a writer or an actor a job for people who are not independently wealthy. 

While the strike mainly affected actors and writers, the underlying issue was universal: There are fewer and fewer opportunities for working artists to sustain a living. There used to be a time when filmmakers and directors could rely on commercials and music videos.

However, the collapse of near total migration away from television as a medium to online content, in addition to the diminishing cultural significance of music videos except for only the biggest names in the industry, has decimated what was once a fruitful and pragmatic training ground for filmmakers. While often derided as crass or hollow, commercials and music videos allowed filmmakers to exercise their artistic muscles. To say nothing of doing wonders to pay the bills.

Everyone hates ads. We always have. Few things can unite a group of individuals with nothing in common, like a hatred for government intransigence and commercials.

Commercials are the most cursed of the cursed. Collectively, as a culture, we abandoned television and embraced new so-called revolutionary streaming models to escape them. But in so doing, we annihilated a proven workshop for working-class artists.

Documentarian Errol Morris famously worked on commercials between commercial gigs, which allowed him to earn enough money to continue his projects. His Miller High Life commercials feel less like shilling for a product and more like exploring how to use an economy of images to convey emotion and story. 

The infamous Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone did car commercials for the Renault 18 & 19. The ads are pure Leone, complete with an Ennio Morricone-esque soundtrack, for a mid-size family car. An exercise in spectacle, while silly, the ads no less make an impact.

Sergio Leone, director of classics like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, produced a series of car commercials after his final film, Once Upon a Time in America.

Besides paying for things, a commercial’s primary job was to connect the viewer to the product, to entertain and evoke. Local commercials were a bit like community theater, baroque expressions of local color. I myself have fond memories of Jennifer, the Watson’s Pool girl who sold hot tubs and outside pools in the Kanas City area.

It seems silly, but those commercials are bound up in my memories of my youth as much as the Ray Adams Drive-in, a Saturday afternoon show where Ray Adams, the owner of several Toyota dealerships, showed a movie every weekend. It was a show that had commercials for, guessed it, Ray Adams dealerships. Yet, here I am at 44 years old with Jennifer and Ray Adams fresh in my mind. Meanwhile, the latest commercial I saw while I looked up a video on threading a weed whacker vanished even before the video started.

The new breed of commercials is worse than the old ones. Often, you’ll see the exact commercial five times in a row. Or worse, a fraction of a longer commercial, sandwiched between two other longer commercials that, depending on where you’re watching, are opposed to the program you’re watching.

They exist because they must. But no thought, no craft, is put into them. Editing is truncated for time, imagery is flat and bland, and most importantly, there’s no vibe or atmosphere. Modern commercials are more crass, hollow, and devious because they exist to trigger an emotion, making them somewhat sinister.

On the other hand, music videos have become more and more elite. Getting your song on the radio was a big deal for a time, but getting a music video out of the deal could be life-changing for the talent and the people who made it. Antonie Fuqua, Spike Jonze, McG, and David freaking Fincher are a handful of names of directors who have done music videos. Music videos, like commercials, helped hone editing skills and visual narrative techniques. More than that, depending on the artists, it also helped in learning how to deal with difficult talent or help in figuring out how to work together to express a vision.

Two years before directing Charlie’s Angels, McG directed, among other things, the Smash Mouth video for “Walkin’ On the Sun”.

Music videos, like commercials, could be creatively vacuous. However, they could also be on-the-ground training for skills one needs on the set. If you couldn’t get a film off the ground either at the independent level or on a studio level, you could always count on commercials or music videos to keep you going. They weren’t just resume padding either; a producer looking at a filmmaker and seeing commercial or music video work had a better understanding of a filmmaker’s potential than he does from someone who only made one film.

Filmmaking is an art, but like all art, it comes from practice and doing. While we may have YouTube, TikTok, and other video-sharing sites, they only exercise amateur muscles, not professional ones. The demise of the mid-budget film was bad enough, but seeing commercials and music videos mutate into their current forms is depressing.

If for no other reason, aside from being chances to sharpen tools in a filmmaker’s toolkit, they were fun. There was a sense of play with them that is absent from today’s market-focused AI-infused demo-targeting ads. 

Images courtesy of Smash Mouth, Interscope, Apple

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