People often question why documentary filmmakers direct commercials. What's the motivation? Ask just about any documentary filmmaker worth his or her salt, they'll tell you. It's the opportunity to capture humanity in short form.
Capturing humanity is a very important part of making an effective commercial, or any film. Let me preface that statement. It's important for the soft-sell approach, not the hard-sell campaigns with actors holding up product and announcing this is "new and improved." Stories about the interesting lives of real people who are motivated by honest emotions are entertaining, powerful and uplifting. And like a rising tide that lifts all boats, these stories create an uplifting experience for the brands involved and a feeling of trust.
How do you capture humanity poignantly in 30 seconds, or three minutes? Here are six principles that have helped me.
Emotions at Light Speed—In commercials and short films, you have a short amount of time to get to know your subjects. The first thing you do is gain their trust. Let them know who you are, what you're looking for, what do you find interesting about them. You end up having a very intimate relationship that passes very quickly, yet it can be very deep.
There should be a word or phrase for it, emotions at light speed; you go in there and have an incredibly full experience in a short amount of time. When it's over, it feels like you've been with them for months.
Surrender—Put your ego and needs aside, and surrender to the story. Dive into it and explore. Surrender yourself to the people you're talking to. Devote your full attention to them so they feel really comfortable and know you're listening to them, so they'll know through your interest there's no reason to be nervous about a camera pointed at them.
The conversation becomes candid, real and authentic. You're not just making the film as a director. You're making it as a person.
Structure—You should always hope that the people you're filming surprise you and take you on an unexpected journey. But you have to know the potential of the story, and prepare yourself in case the story isn't as strong as you hoped, or the characters are not as charismatic as you hoped, or they don't know how to articulate their experience.
You need to have prepared questions and a structure. You have to determine the beginning, middle and end of a story. If you have all that, it's going to be a more satisfying experience for audiences.
Sweet Spot—There's always been a stigma about documentary films and sometimes about nonfiction work in general, that it's "serious" and people say they are glad they watched it but it was like eating a vegetable.
Go ahead and give them the vegetable, but also make viewers feel like they've had something sweet and enjoyable as well. You're not just competing against other nonfiction filmmakers; you're competing against Spider-Man and The Wire. You have to make your work entertaining, and you want to be entertained while doing it.
Context Is King—Lately, people keep saying content is king. I believe context is king. When you can tell a meaningful story and tie it to a product, it makes that product meaningful. Look for a way to focus on a product, and show how it really worked and affected someone's life.
Documentary filmmakers have an advantage: They're capturing something that really happened. Also, working with real people allows the director to turn the "brand" or the "specific product" into a viable character within the story. Highlighting the brand or product as a character presents a true-life experience of how that brand or product was used. There is nothing made up.
Swell Times—Having a good time on set or location is incredibly important. There's no place for egos and tantrums. The best thing is to work really hard and have a lot of fun and a lot of laughs.
The people on camera feel it. I can't tell you how often the on-camera talent asks me: "Do you work together all the time?" And the answer is no, but that's the kind of atmosphere you need to create, because it makes the subjects feel good, and our job is to make them feel good so they'll be candid and liberated.
In fact, making commercials should be a little bit like surfing. As I always say about surfing, all you have to do is get out there and ride, that's all that matters. The person who's having the most fun in the water, no matter the skill level, that's the best surfer out there.
—Stacy Peralta is the director of Dogtown and Z-Boys, about the birth of skateboard culture in Southern California; Riding Giants, about big-wave surfing featuring Laird Hamilton; Crips and Bloods: Made in America, about the tangled history and relationships of gangs in Los Angeles; and Bones Brigade: An Autobiography. He shoots commercials through Nonfiction Unlimited.
Here is his latest commercial, for Holiday Inn: