Written by Zack Seckler
Edited by Greg Faherty
Like many other professional photographers I’ve been keeping a close eye on the motion phenomenon and have been quickly upgrading my skills so I can create both still and motion content for my clients and myself.
In the search to educate myself about directing motion I came across an excellent book called The 30-Second Storyteller: The Art and Business of Directing Commercials by director Thomas Richter. It’s a fantastic resource. Not just because it is indeed about the art and business of directing commercials but because it comes straight from a person who cut their chops as a director, not as a still photographer.
This is important because we get a peek into the world of full-scale commercial productions. Or in other words: we get to see how the big boys roll.
I interviewed the author/director Thomas Richter about his directing experience, his views on the industry and where still photographers fit into the mix. What follows is a ton of valuable information for anyone interested in professionally directing motion.
Seckler: What was your path to becoming a commercial director?
Richter: I went to college with the goal of becoming a director. At the time there was the perception that if you start off in commercials you get to work faster, and eventually you’ll have a shot at doing movies. Some of the recent graduates at that time, like Michael Bay and Zack Snyder, had done just that, become really successful commercial and music video directors. It hasn’t always been like that. There were times when it’s been difficult to be a commercial director and make it into the movies. But there was this opportunity, and so a lot of us just thought, let’s do a commercial reel because it’s cheaper than shooting a movie.
I graduated in ’96, with a commercial reel that was very heavily children’s commercials, be it a car commercial or food commercial or whatever. Doing that served me well to start out with, because it was a specialty niche, but I got tired of it pretty quickly and switched over to a more comedic style.
Seckler: How long did it take until you were able to start making a living at directing?
Richter: It was pretty quick. I was doing really well by, like, ’98. I got my first smaller jobs in 1997. Mostly in Europe. I had some bites here [in LA], but then it started going a little better in Europe. Public service announcements, lottery type spots, etc. The types of projects where production companies hire fresh, new, young directors. The budgets ranged from $10,000 to $20,000.
Seckler: So, those things start to come along and then you start to get bigger jobs.
Richter: Yeah. Obviously it’s different for everyone. One of my student friends back then, he did this spec spot for Budweiser, and it was so funny that Budweiser actually used it for the Super Bowl. So all of a sudden he had a Super Bowl spot. And that’s just the way it is. You start with smaller jobs, and then hopefully someone will see it and it’s good enough so that your reel looks good, and some agency will give you a shot. Unfortunately, this is a really hard time to do that because of the entire state of the industry. But opportunities are always out there.
Seckler: When you started out, did you have a production company representing you at that time?
Richter: Yes, you always have to have a company, because they have the contacts. So it’s always good, almost necessary financially, to have a production company behind you that has some clout, that can curry favors and can get the equipment and have the insurance.
Seckler: Got it. So tell me, what’s the typical career arc of a director? You mentioned in your book that directors will only spend a few years at the peak of their career. That begs the question: what happens after your peak?
Richter: You can be a director for longer, but there’s usually a time when you’re really hot. And sometimes guys manage to make that peak longer, and sometimes they manage to have sort of a second peak or a comeback type thing. It’s different for everyone. There was a time when Tarsem Singh (who directed the R.E.M video “Losing My Religion”) was the hottest shit around. And, right now he’s not really doing many commercials. He had a very specific style that was hot for a moment, and now it’s not hot anymore. And the same for people like Michael Bay, who did a very specific kind of music video and commercial that was high-production, that was very over-stylized in a storytelling way. But he managed to move on into features. Very successfully, obviously. Others start production companies. Some keep working in commercials. So you definitely want to be aware that you might have a time when you’re making a ton of money, but that’s not going to last so you’d better put the money in the bank. And try to find some kind of solid income for whatever comes after.
Seckler: Can you give people an idea of what a director could make while they’re doing really well, and then what they could make after they’ve gone through that hot period where they’re just kind of working for the bank?
Richter: Well, if you have a really good year, you might shoot fifteen commercials, maybe twenty. That’s a lot. And these are not the A+ list commercials, because those take longer, so you can’t shoot as many. You’re probably going to make twenty grand per shooting day. That’s an upper average. So you can make upwards of $350,000 -$400,000 without being one of the super-hot top guys, who can pull $5 million or $6 million quite easily. I was able to make $100,000 – $120,000 for two or three years straight by shooting between eight to ten spots a year.
Seckler: Is that still a valid range?
Richter: It’s gotten a little tougher. A lot has changed with the recession and the general downturn in advertising, so the rates have dropped dramatically. For someone like me it’s pretty much stayed the same except there’s less work. Because I would consider myself the B- range, and there are a lot of A guys that are doing work now they wouldn’t have touched three or four years ago. They’re doing detergent commercials. I’m bidding against people that, and it blows my mind. I bid against David Mamet. And I’m just like, are you kidding me? I’m bidding against a literary icon? It’s like, if I were an agency and I had the choice between David Mamet and me, I’d be working with David Mamet, just because then they can walk around saying that they worked with David Mamet. So that’s why it’s gotten hard at an entry level.
Seckler: For the people out there who aren’t at the top but are getting ten jobs or so a year what do they do for the rest of that time?
Richter: Well, it’s misrepresenting to say you have ten shooting days, because each shooting is preceded by a one or two-week pre-production phase, and in some cases you’re part of the post-production. In some cases you’re not, but usually you’ll at least do a director’s cut, which will take two or three days. So each project is generally at least a two-week project. And then you have to take into account writing the treatment and bidding for the job. That can take a week, and chances are for every spot you book you were bidding on ten others that you didn’t book. So that’s all work, you know.
Seckler: What’s your opinion about where the industry is going? Do you think that it’s specifically tied to how the economy is doing, or do you think the industry as a whole is changing because of, for example, new media and people gravitating from television to online viewing?
Richter: I think that in a way it has been the perfect storm for this industry. With the recession and the overall economic downturn, the first thing to get cut is advertising budgets. But besides that, online media and the proliferation of things like You Tube and the web have caused clients to say, ‘wait a minute, why should I pay $500,000 for a commercial, and why should I pay a TV network $10 million to run it if I can distribute it for free over the Internet, get 10 million hits, and shoot it for $20,000?’ And the main change has taken place in the mid-field.
All of the commercials that were between $300,000 and $750,000, those commercials are gone. All the top commercials, the ones where they spend $750,000 and up, they’re still around. And the whole convergence of Internet and television that we’re witnessing, and the change of the entire prime-time network model, no one has really figured out how that’s going to work. Television networks are clinging to the old models because that’s where they make most of the money. They don’t have the answers. They don’t know how they’re going to keep their model in existence, quite honestly.
Seckler: What’s your opinion?
Richter: Well, I think the good news is that content is going to be king. Good content will be what takes a commercial to the top. That’s what we’re seeing with the video sharing, with people sharing cool little clips. Internet and television are going to be the same appliance. So I think the budgets are going to stay low. It’s never going to go back to the good old times. But even with that said, there’s still a pretty good paycheck in most cases because things just cost money if you want to do them right.
Seckler: You mentioned lower production quality…when the HD-DSLR cameras hit the market, how did that impact the motion industry, specifically commercials?
Richter: HD opened the door to a lot of high-quality cameras people wouldn’t have considered before, especially agencies. There’s a perception still in many places that it’s just low-budget and low production value to shoot HD. But agencies can be convinced that shooting on a digital format can look exactly the same as shooting on film. It really depends on the project how much is saved in the budget and how big the fit is.
Seckler: In terms of influence, I was thinking that it’s made high-quality video available at a much cheaper price to many more people, especially professional still photographers. So, in that sense, have you seen an impact? Have you seen a lot of still photographers make the transition into commercials?
Richter: Anyone can go rent or buy an HD camera nowadays, but that’s not going to make them a director. The good commercial is still an amalgamation of so many things. It’s the content; it’s how you shoot it. It’s how you conceptualize it. And then there is the editing, the music, that will make it look and feel professional. I think one of the major challenges for still photographers would be editing. You know, editing in motion pictures is probably the single most powerful tool. And it’s the only thing that filmmaking has that no other art form has. Everything else we borrow. If I was a photographer trying to break into commercials, I would study editing because that’s what sets it apart from still photography. You can look at a still image for ten minutes and appreciate every inch of it. In commercials, you can’t do that. You see an image for maybe two seconds, and yet you have to communicate something with that image instantly.
Seckler: Do you have any specific advice for still photographers who might want to break into directing commercials?
Richter: The editing is a huge deal. I would study editing. I would look into how editing works, because there’s a dynamic motion that can make things seem fluent or it can create conflict. And that’s because it all goes back to storytelling at the end. It has a lot to do with how your brain processes information. In animation, for example, your brain fills in the motion. It’s actually about the gaps in the motion more than it is about showing every second of one motion.
Seckler: What about advice for building a reel? In the book you recommend spec spots, right? Why is it important to actually feature a real product as opposed to just doing something that’s good in and of itself but doesn’t feature a brand name?
Richter: Your reel is what will get you into the door, not just with a production company but also with agencies and ultimately clients. And every step of the way is less creative. People are less creative, less artistic, less imaginative. And they’re going to be looking more at some sort of bottom line, be it financial or a fear of losing their job. So each agency creative who looks at it also thinks about, ‘how can I show this, how can I sell this to my client?’ They want to be able to say, ‘okay, this guy knows what he’s doing. He’s done this before. I can trust this.’ So if you have beautiful fantastic stuff, or even super funny stuff, but it’s something that’s not quite a commercial, then it raises questions. And the fewer questions that are raised, the better.
Seckler: So it’s about safety.
Richter: Yes. If you have a reel and everyone knows it’s all spec, they’re going to be scared. Ideally you want the commercial to look absolutely real, where they don’t even question, where they don’t even ask if it’s real or if it’s a spec spot. And those are the spots that will give you the most for your money.
Seckler: So how do you recommend people start out building a reel?
Richter: Well, the first thing you have to do is take stock of what’s out there and see how you fit into that. What’s your style? Do you like comedy, do you like pretty pictures, do you like tabletop? And then you look and see, what’s hot right now. What are people looking for? And you can either buy into that completely and do what everyone is doing, or you can try to do your art form and add something to it, make something that’s interesting and at the same time commercial. In the comedy world, one way is to ask creative if they have boards. Creatives will write, like, fifty spots for every spot that’s even considered by a client, so they have tons of stuff lying around. Tabletop is easy because you can go and buy some products and just shoot it really pretty. Cars are really expensive to do, so that’s one of those things where you’ve got to sort of work your way into cars rather than do a spec car reel because otherwise you’ll be spending a lot of money. I’ve known people who spend $120,000 on their spec reel and never get any work out of it.