Posts Tagged ‘Boris’

Everything you wanted to know about Subtext (but were too afraid to ask)

October 9, 2012

When I was at film school, I had a teacher Bill Reilly who taught me to understand the importance of subtext as a director. I grew up in an acting family, so I knew about communicating subtext to actors, as Boris might say, “Love is not ‘I love you,’ love is chicken.” But I had never thought about how the subtext of a scene might relate to how you filmed the scene. If two characters are talking, but the subtext is their separateness, that’s a different shot then if the subtext is their desire to be together. Bill taught me that, and it’s been among the most important lessons I took away from NYU.

When I first saw this ad, I wondered if it was some Onion satire, it was so sharp and funny, a parody of a political ad. It’s like a nested doll, a parody of an ad, that’s an ad itself, there’s a certain post revisionist meta brilliance to it (deconstruct that phrase for a moment, I have no idea what it means, but I like it). It’s an actual ad, running on cable not in battlegrounds, but still airing on TV’s across the nation.

I think at face value the ad is pretty funny and does a good job at subverting Romney. Not just the message of he’s getting tough on Sesame street, but not wall street, though that’s important. No, it somehow make Romney seem small and petty, Big Bird, really? Come on, don’t we have bigger issues to take on?

That’s the surface, but I think the true value of the ad is the subtext of its message. To me, this ad says Obama gets it. It’s funny and a bit whimsical, likable and clever. An ad like this makes Obama seem more real to me, because he’s tapping into the current meme of the election. It’s politics and its serious, but he’s not above being a little silly in the face of the ridiculous.

Maybe put another way, the ad is on-message, but it’s also on-emotion, it reflects what some voters are already thinking and amplifies it. That’s a powerful tool.

I don’t know if they intended that to be the subtext of the ad, again as Boris used to say, “your work is on the screen,” so whether they intended it or not, once it’s in there, that’s purposeful enough.

Subtext is a powerful tool, in my mind more powerful than the surface text, because it operates on the viewer, often unconsciously. This ad works on both levels, but the subtext “he gets it” can also translate to “he’s one of us.” To my mind that’s really more useful in this election than a clever hit on Romney and Wall Street.

 

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It’s on the screen

February 29, 2012

You know I once sat next to Tommy Thompson at a dinner, didn’t know who he was till he introduced himself, for the life of me I don’t remember his lips being so red.  In fact, I can’t remember an ad I’ve watched where a candidates lips have stood out so much. Not sure if his lips really are that red or it’s some kind of make-up malfunction — sorry digression.

What really struck me about this ad was how flat it was. There was no energy to the spot. Even the shots of him listening to people, he looks cranky.

Whether or not these Thompson felt comfortable with these words or he was really happy to be listening to the people in the spot, I can’t answer those question. Boris used to say, “Guys, your work is on the screen,” when a director would try to explain why a shot wasn’t working or an actor’s performance was off. What he meant was an audience doesn’t know or shouldn’t care  about all the time and trouble that went into a shoot, they don’t care about the obstacles overcome or the problems that plagued you, all they can judge you by is what’s on the screen.

By that standard, I question the decision to run this ad.  I don’t care what the plan is, if it’s not working, you have to be able to adjust.  I don’t see how putting Thompson to camera, looking grumpy and sounding uncomfortable helps sell his campaign message or convey the the emotion he wants voters to feel. Honestly, I was so distracted by what was going on, that I didn’t even hear the words until the third of fourth time I watched the ad. And, when I did hear them, they didn’t resonate at all, there was no conviction behind them, so why should I believe them at all.  The ad felt very paint by numbers, like they were all just going through the motions, I don’t blame Tommy Thompson for that, I blame his consultants.

 

A couple of quickies

June 22, 2011

Content is slow these days, so maybe I shouldn’t be breaking these reviews out, but I didn’t have much to say about either of them, but I did want to say something about them.

First from Nevada:

I find this ad incomprehensible. I get the connection they’re trying to make, but it’s either too subtle to too obtusely executed, that I’m confused. Then to top it off the candidate makes an appearance at the end, spouting political speak about raising “Obama’s debt limit” and ending the nightmare. This concept was much better executed (on a bigger budget) in the “Chinese Professor spot,” which I reviewed last year. That spot makes the threat seem real, this spot makes it seem, I don’t know…, but there’s no urgency, so it makes the candidate appear like a wingnut saying he’s going to end a nightmare that seems comical rather than imminent.

A friend sent me this video from Jon Huntsman the great sane hope or something like that. It was weird watching it, boring in parts, sublime in other sections, subtle in concept, but strangely heavy handed in execution — I love the section that starts “dropped out of high school to travel with his band Wizard…” as Boris would say, “Guys, this is movie.”

But for the most part, it felt both like it was trying too hard to make their points. Take the Wizard section. They could have given the viewed the information, “dropped out of high school…blah, blah, blah” and left the viewer to fill in the conclusion this guy is not your ordinary politician, instead they feel compelled to tell you that in the narration, in case you missed it. It’s like they don’t trust this unique concept which is something like a visual haiku nor do they trust the viewer.

And the whole America from 10,000 miles thing, I just didn’t get it? What does it mean?  I did also like the backhanded  shots they took a their opponents.  Still, I found this video perplexing but a good lesson. And maybe thats’s the lesson of the first video as well. You have to trust your concept, I know I make this point often, but it’s clear in these videos they didn’t. They liked the concepts, but didn’t completely trust them to get the job done, so they embellished the message just so everyone got it, but in doing so they undermine the strength of the concept, it becomes neither fish nor fowl as my mom liked to say.

As I wrote to my friend somewhere in this Huntsman video there’s a brilliant concept busting to get out.

 

Attack and Counter in Kentucky

October 18, 2010

In this race, Conway is down, but not an insurmountable amount, but time is running out.  They can go back and forth or they can try for the big play, swing for the fences, knock out blow, pick your favorite sports analogy here. Well, they sure went for it.

I have to appreciate the fact that they didn’t sugar coat, didn’t back down, didn’t try to hide behind a euphemism, but damned this is an ugly ad, for it’s look as much as it’s content. The ad is so extreme in it’s claim, that it’s hard for me to judge how effective it’ll be.

To me, it feels like it’s trying real hard, almost too hard.  Desperate might not be the right word…, I think the word I’m looking for is pandering. Hey Kentucky, you’re Christians, well Rand Paul he’s not or maybe he’s not, see don’t you hate him now, huh, please, right?  (Eyebrows making exaggerate pleas.)

There’s no formula to these things, but I believe that the harder and more outrageous the claim, the softer you ought to sell it. This ad is an 11 on the claim scale, and a 9 on the political negative cliche scale.

Josh Marshall said, “It registered for me as somewhere between a hokey Tea Party ad and an SNL spoof.” It’s never a good thing when your hard hitting negative looks like a spoof of an ad. In the whole form supporting function, it just doesn’t add to the credibility of the ad.

It’s one thing to make the decision to air the attack, but the manner it was aired makes it feel clumsy and desperate, a more refined ad, might have overcome that problem.

Paul countered with this ad stating, “He has Christ in his heart,” and that Conway is “[bearing] false witness” against him.

The response to Conway’s attack makes me wonder if Paul didn’t feel vulnerable to it. Seems like overkill to say you both have “Christ in your heart” and he’s bearing false witness again you, but I’m from Kentucky, and I’m not the one who’s had my christianity questioned.  Obviously that last line is a not too subtle attempt to invoke biblical language.  Again feels like pandering to me, “See Kentucky, I can say things like bear witness and smite, so I must be Christian….” Ok he doesn’t say “smite” but maybe he should have.

The response is pretty cliche (other than false witness which you don’t hear very often these days), dark grayed out shots of Conway, his lips flapping hard edged newpaper headlines to accentuate their point (though the script ads the line “gutter politics at its worse,” which isn’t a quote as far as I can tell).  This ad isn’t as over the top as the original ad, but if Boris were here he might say, “Rand,… check yourself…..”

So who wins this round? Both ads are pretty lame, so as far as form goes, it’s a draw.  The Conway ad feels a little cheaper, the Paul ad cleaner and slicker, but neither one distinguishes themselves.

So if it comes down to function, I’ll give the win to Conway on the technical point that they raised the issue, and it seems that’s what folks are talking about with two weeks left in the campaign.  Maybe it backfires, maybe it doesn’t work, but it’s not what Paul wants to be talking about that’s for sure.

All Fred Davis for Today

September 22, 2010

I tweeted this earlier today, but it’s worth repeating anyone interested in political advertising should read this article about GOP ad “guru” Fred Davis. In some ways Fred Davis embodies exactly the kind of creative, boundary pushing, emotional story telling ads that I advocate for on this blog. In other ways, I think his ads can fall into the gimmick category — using outrageous for the sake of getting attention, even if that attention is for the outrageousness of the ad rather than the message it is disseminating. In other words, his ads get more attention than they are effective (I’m thinking specifically of his Paris Hilton ad against Obama).

I also find him personally annoying, but that could be just the way he’s presented in the press (or the persona/story he presents to the press as the “creative” genius, maybe in person he’s very nice and interesting).  I do very much appreciate the way he’s unapologetic about his ideas and unafraid to make bold choices creatively (even if he should follow Boris’ advice to “check himself”). We need more people like that in political ad making.

My only other comment is how well he could perform on smaller budgets?  It’s great to make a provocative $40k viral video, but a lot of campaigns don’t have that kind of cash. Creativity isn’t dependent on money, but money sure helps when it comes to execution.

In honor of Fred Davis, here’s a couple of recent examples of his work:

A while back I looked at parodies of the “Daisy Ad,” and in general I found the parodies not compelling. This ad is a parody of the classic Reagan ad, “Morning in America”:

This ad measure up very well with the original. Striking the same tone to opposite effect. It uses the original as an anchor to twist the message, are you better off now than four years ago. In the original the answer was yes, in this ad the answer is a resounding no.

This ad for Carly Fiorina I was less impressed with:

Visually I found it uninspired, from a message point of view, I found it bewildering. You’re going to come after Boxer for being a millionaire while Californians are suffering? Um, that’s exactly what Boxer is attacking Fiorina for doing while she was at HP.  Now, I’m all for undercutting the opponent’s argument, political aikido and all, but I just don’t find Fiorina’s claim credible.  Or put another way, I find the attack on her time as CEO of HP more credible, while this attack on Boxer leaves me with a shrug.  Though I should say, I really do like the music…, I wonder how much it cost?

Part of the art of political advertising is knowing when to go for a homerun and when a single is all you need.

It’s a little like M.A.S.H.

September 8, 2010

I re-tweeted a post from “Hey Whipple Squeeze This” author Luke Sullivan entitled, “Super Bowl Ads (versus all the rest of the year).”

It’s a good article, which basically argues that we should put the same effort into every ad that is put into a Super Bowl ad.  Why does a Super Bowl ad have to rock, but for the other 364 days of the year is it ok for an ad to be just ok.

I agree with that thought, there should be no throw away ads, though too often, especially in politics there are, we need a response ad: Cue standard response ad.  We need an attack: Cue standard attack ad.  You’ve seen them before.

All that being said, sometimes it’s just not possible to make a great ad.  My partner and I say, a great ad a day late, is worth nothing.  Making political ads is far different from general advertising in this respect.  The timelines are shorter, turnarounds faster, and the pressure to get it right (because there is a campaign end and you don’t get a second shot) higher.

I’ve often compared political ad making to general ad making like this:

General ad making is like operating at a hospital, there are emergencies and such, but time is scheduled the pace is predictable, there is an order to it.

Political ad making is surgery in a M.A.S.H. unit (for those of you old enough to remember the movie and TV show). Often it’s meatball surgery.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t the chance for brilliance and creative genius to shine through (as it often did in the hands of Hawkeye Pierce). But sometimes it’s just enough to get an ad to air in time to respond or attack or whatever. My purpose here is to say it doesn’t always have to be just getting it out, that there is room for more.

My partner and I once turned an ad around in 2 hours from writing to shipping to stations to meet an airing deadline.  How good an ad can you create in two hours?  Someone said, “It looks good for an ad made in two hours,” and I replied, “Unless you’re going to be there telling the viewers we only had two hours to create this ad, it better look good for an ad, period.”

As Boris used to say when someone tried to defend their work, “Guys, it is on the screen.”

I guess what I’m trying to say, is that I get it, political ads can be tough to make well given the money and timelines.  Sometimes good enough is good enough because it makes it to air in time. But that doesn’t mean we still shouldn’t treat each ad like it was airing on the Super Bowl, at least we can try.

Maybe it’s me

August 23, 2010

A friend sent me this one, with the note, “Best political ad of the year…”

Watching a video like this, I got to wonder is it just me, maybe I’m lacking creativity and vision.  But I just don’t get it.

On one hand, wow, they really went for it.  You got to appreciate the fact they aren’t going with vanilla. They sure went through what seems like a lot of effort — complete with dressing their candidate up like young Terri Garr. There’s of art direction going on to parody a 35 year old movie. And, while I’ve talked about other ads/videos not trusting their concept, these guys trust theirs all the way.

The section with the violin, to quote Boris, “Guys, this is movie.” That part works, it drives home the message (though it ends with “Ahmadinejad, he’s my boyfriend,” and while that’s accurate to the parody, seems way over the top here).

Still, at the end of the day, this video feels like a mess to me.  Another film school quote, “If you notice the boom mic in the shot, then the scene isn’t working.” Well, I noticed the shoddy camera work.  The choice of “Young Frankenstein” is odd, and even odder is dressing your candidate up like a gothic heroine, but alright.  In the end, there’s 10 seconds of good material, but the rest leaves me searching for the meaning. What’s the deal with Frankenstein and Iran?  I’m not sure what the metaphor is supposed to be? What is Harman creating?

At the end of the day, this seems like an elaborate gimmick. In other words, it a concept driving message, not a message driving a concept.  It may get Mattie Fein attention, but I wonder what that attention is, will people see the production values and see her as serious?  Will the attacks stick?

I admire their gusto and style, but question their judgement.  Maybe it’s just me though.

Blah, blah, blah

July 29, 2010

Brad Ellsworth up with his first ad.  Ok, here’s my issues:

1. The guy is a Congressman, and he talks about Washington like he’s never seen the Capitol.  He works there.  It just seems disingenuous.  

2. I like that he says “bull,” and it’s a nice segue to the fact he was a sheriff for 25 years (doesn’t say he is a Congressman), but if I have to hear the same tired lines about Washington, again and again this cycle it’s gonna make me vomit. 

Look cliche is fine, you have 30 seconds to get across a lot — heck that’s why they filmed in a broken down factory (interesting location by the way), and cliche is a great shortcut, but as Boris would say, “Guys check yourself.” When you find yourself slipping into cliche whether visually or in your script, you have to pause and ask yourself, is there another way to show or say this? Can I do something surprising or new here? Sometimes the answer is yes, that’s when something cool usually happens. 

Sometimes the answer is no. That’s when you get an ad like this one with the same old blah, blah, blah.

We interrupt our regularly schedule programing…

April 28, 2010

I was going to post about this ad from Pete Domenici, Jr.

This ad is a prime example of teleprompter gone bad, I swear you can see him squinting to read from the prompter.  The long and the short of it is, if you’re running for governor your ads have to have enough gravitas for the office (especially if you have a famous last name).  Now there are exceptions to that rule, but those exceptions must portray the candidate as viable and be authentic.  This is almost a bad parody of a political ad.

This is the ad that bumped the teleprompter gone bad series:

As tough as it is, I’m going to leave the controversial issue of English only aside.  This is going to sound scary, but I think this is a pretty effective ad.  There’s one too many close up shots of Tim James walking towards the camera, but other than that, I can see this ad connecting with a lot of people.  My old film school teacher Boris used to say, “Guys, close up is mystery.”  Here the close up creates a connection, and I think the mystery is that you can read into Tim James the qualities you want.

I appreciate the close-up only because it indicates that the director made a choice.  It would have been easy (and safer) to shoot this wide, then go close, then wide, standard stuff.  The fact that they stayed close and had James walking tells me that they were thinking about it, as opposed to doing the same old.  I appreciate that kind of thoughtfulness.

I think Tim James himself does a great job of delivering the message. Again, politics aside, he’s believable and tough, but he also he comes across as strong and not an asshole or some hair on fire radical (again, politics aside).  That’s a tough act to accomplish when you’re talking about English only.

I find the ending particularly compelling. While the pause (or “beat”) may be slightly longer than I would have liked, I think it’s effective, “Maybe it’s the businessman in me, but we’ll save money and it makes sense…*beat*… Does it to you?” I think that pause, the line helps to draw the audience in, gives them time to engage with the argument, and makes James seem even more reasonable, he’s asking what I think —  wow he must really care.  The soft ending helps defuse the hard message. If tea party politicians start figuring out how to put a candy coating on their message it could be a real big problem for progressives.

My partner (the Rabin part of Rabin Strasberg) reminded me of the similarly themed Buchanan for President ad “Meatball”:

The ad is similar in that it takes the same inflammatory issue and deal with it in a soft way — in this case humor.  This ad is also a good example of a gimmick that actually works. It’s memorable  and on message. Of course, the argument didn’t take Buchanan very far in 2000, I’m curious how it’ll work for Tim James.

This Week’s Inspiration

June 18, 2009

I mentioned this ad in the GM post as one of my all time favorites. It was made several years ago, and I still marvel at it every time I watch it.

What do I like? Why does this ad excite me?

First, there’s the music, ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky,” so evocatively used here. The repetition of images — as Boris would say, “Guys, this is experience.” I know this guy, my friends are him — even if I didn’t know this guy before, I know him now.

The spot is exquisitely filmed and edited. The shots, which are the foundation, tell the story without the need for words or dialog; they are an almost perfect example of the mantra, show don’t tell. The editing doesn’t draw attention to itself, but it can’t be ignored; it’s perfectly timed to the music, the way the shots are layered. It’s neither frenetic nor slow.

This ad tells a story. A story of boredom, of longing.  And it tells that story with music and visuals, that’s it, thank you for playing.

Compare this ad with the Alzheimer ad. They both use visuals to tell a story, both are emotional (in different ways). But the pace and editing are almost in total contrast. The Alzheimer ad uses long, lingering shots, where this ad has quick repeating images layered across the screen. It shows there’s more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to visual story telling.

Also consider this idea. It’s a car ad.  You never see the car (genre convention, show the car), yet you know exactly what the car is about, right? Do you need to know how fast it goes or what kind of fuel mileage it gets? Do you have to see it to want it? The form of the ad buttresses its function without hitting the viewer over the head with meaning, or CG’s or information. Next time you feel like adding that line of text to tell your viewer some piece of information, think of this ad. Ask yourself, can I convey that same idea by showing it?

Now excuse me, I’m going to watch this ad about 10 more times.  It’s so damned elegant and wonderful.


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