Directing TV Commercials: Practical Tips and Advice

Directing TV commercials involves more than just shooting a 30-second movie: there are some critically important issues that normally do not arise in feature films.

In this post I will share some tips that are specific to shooting 30-second commercials or any film/video project that must have a short and very specific length.

You must plan the fully edited 30-second sequence on paper, with accurate shot-by-shot timings – Absolutely vital!

If you ever have to shoot a 30-second project, the first thing that will strike you is just how tight the 30-second duration is.

Those 30 seconds go by incredibly quickly, and you must therefore plan not just each shot, but also the precise duration of each shot in the cut sequence, which is almost never necessary in films.

You see, when editing a movie you have plenty of leeway when it comes to shot duration in a cut sequence. For example, if you want to hold a shot for an extra couple of seconds for whatever reason, it is never a problem. Only musical issues can sometimes force you to cut a scene to split-second accuracy in a film (more about this in future).

30-second commercials are a whole different ball game. The newbie director will be horrified to see that the brilliant tracking shot that took 34 takes to get right ends up occupying 6 seconds on the editing timeline, leaving no room to fit the other shots into the 30-second sequence. And here is the really scary bit: you cannot simply chop 4 seconds off the shot, because you directed it a certain way and it won’t work if you chop it. It is not scalable. This applies to pretty much every shot in a TV commercial, even the most straightforward static close-up. If a line was delivered in 5 seconds and there is no room for all of it, obviously you cannot just chop the last 2 seconds off. What you can do is direct the actor to deliver the line in 3 seconds, but you can only do this if you know in advance that this line must be delivered in 3 seconds.

The solution to this problem is that you must plan in advance how much screen time each shot will occupy in the finished sequence, including of course the product shot and logo. In other words, you must edit the commercial on paper – literally. This is an additional step in pre-production that is simply never done in regular filmmaking, and if you have to shoot a 30-second project in future, you need to bear this in mind, upon pain of excruciating frustration in the editing room.

Here is the plan I did for the Geek Squad spot on my reel:

– Keyboard gag (two shots covering same gag): 7 seconds

– Printer shot: 7 seconds

– Glasses shot: 6 seconds

– Logo and voice-over: 3 seconds

– Smashed computer shot: 7 seconds

It may seem trivial, but the only reason I was able to edit this spot successfully is the plan I made in advance. If I had directed those shots like a movie, the spot would have ended up being 80 seconds long, with no hope of trimming it down to 30 seconds. You will be shocked at how desperately tight those 30 seconds are!

For example, in the first shot the actress says “Hi, I’m Sarah,” offers her hand, notices there is a keyboard tied to it and looks back up. I knew that this had to take exactly 7 seconds – neither more nor less. On the first few takes the action lasted 9 seconds. I told the actress to do it in 7 seconds and that is exactly what she did. (This, by the way, is the joy of working with seriously talented professional actors – I love them!)

A quick word about deciding the duration of each shot in advance

The decision cannot be arbitrary; you have to make a real assessment of how much each shot really needs. The way to do this is to perform the scene by yourself and time it. As always, the first attempt of each gag takes too long, but by seeing the relative duration of the various gags in the TV spot you can decide what fraction of the 30 seconds you should allocate to each one. You cannot afford to skip this step.

It follows that, on a TV commercial shoot, someone must time each shot with a stopwatch. This is usually done by the Script Supervisor, but I like to do it myself – not during the take, but when reviewing it on the video monitor. After all, I will also be editing it, and only I know exactly where the shot will begin and end on the editing timeline. When reviewing the take, I start the stopwatch where I want to start the shot and I stop it when I want to cut to the next shot in the sequence. If this span of time is too long, we reduce the duration on the next take. It is worth repeating: this trimming and tweaking ONLY works if you do it on the shoot – by the time you get to the editing room it is too late.

Some thoughts on hiring crew members for TV commercial shoots

Shooting TV commercials is like shooting a movie, but with two important exceptions: 1) the timing issues discussed above, and 2) the speed and pressure of shooting. Seasoned TV commercial crew members are typically faster than movie crews, simply because the pace of TV commercial shoots is faster. I had the privilege of working with a very experienced TV commercial producer once and she warned me that a movie Production Designer would not be as fast during a shoot as a Production Designer who regularly does TV commercial work. I followed her advice and I was grateful for it. The same applies to Cinematographers, First Assistant Directors and everyone else: they need to deliver outstanding quality at a fast pace. I cannot overemphasise the importance of hiring a truly first-class 1st AD. The 1st AD is your foremost ally in planning the shoot and completing it on time.

Summary

1. Produce your shot list as normal, then plan the finished sequence and decide how long each shot must last on the timeline, right down to the split second.

2. Bring the paper edit with you and refer to it constantly while you shoot.

3. Use a stopwatch to assess the effective duration of each shot and direct as necessary.

4. Hire crew members who are used to working on TV commercials – it is an even faster and more-high-pressure business than movies. You need specialists, especially when it comes to the Cinematographer, 1st AD and Production Designer.

As you can see, successfully directing and editing a 30-second project takes some serious pre-visualisation and planning. In some ways it is the most sublime form of filmmaking, and it is not surprising that some of the most successful film directors started with TV commercials (examples include David Fincher, Michael Bay and Ridley Scott).

I hope you found this useful. Good luck!

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7 thoughts on “Directing TV Commercials: Practical Tips and Advice

  1. This is so helpful! Thanks.

  2. Solid. I had to edit a newb director’s spec spot once…it was painful. Everything was too slow. Not going there again!!

  3. I wish I had read this 2 weeks ago. Now I’m editing and fighting with the 30 second time limit. Lesson learned though!

    Now not all is lost, but the style is going to be massively different as I’m going for a fast paced ‘to the music’ look instead. Another thing to learn.

    So I guess 2 lessons learned for one big mistake. Next time I’ll bring a stopwatch.

  4. Thanks for your great articles! I looked at your sample shot list and see a column titled “Covering” where you have inserted “Whole scene” into the shots. Can you described what that means and what other items may be put into the “Covering” column? Perhaps you have an article that will help me understand this. Thanks and regards!

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