Television advertisements — those didactic short films for people with terrible attention spans — are almost instantly beloved or derided, based on instincts triggered less by substance than style. Some of the biggest ads in recent memory come from a wide variety of products. These commercials, which range from showcasing deodorants to confectionary, succeed because they are inventive, surprising and, more often than not, genuinely funny. Events like the Superbowl have made television commercials an event in unto themselves; the embodiment of a corporate dream, where consumers clamour to be advertised to. With the internet, though, some of the focus has been shifted from a long-lasting television run to a short-term viral smash. The creatives who stand to lose the most from such a shift are the directors who have developed a distinct style over time, who rely on the cumulative effect of a series of ads under the same thematic and stylistic banner.
What’s interesting here is that where in advertising one needs to always shapeshift and change, in feature filmmaking the focus on singular and unique directorial style is of particular significance. It’s interesting, then, to find certain auteurs amongst those ad directors. The overlap doesn’t really concern directors for whom advertising is mere distraction; David Lynch, David Fincher and Nicolas Winding Refn first come to mind, these filmmakers whose visuals are at the forefront of their ad work, yet which is almost inextricably linked to their feature filmmaking. The auteurs of interest are those who have made hundreds of ads, often without their obvious visual hallmarks, or for whom ads provide an alternate canon of their work. Errol Morris and Roy Andersson have worked in the ad world for decades, Morris playing with visual elements from his feature films and expanding on or subtly shifting their effect, whilst Andersson used advertising to hone in on a singular voice that has now become his calling card in recent feature work.
Errol Morris, a legend of modern American documentary filmmaking, should really need no introduction. He’s gotten a man off of death row with The Thin Blue Line (and spawned a whole lot of copycats), has made political powerhouses question their legacy (The Fog of War) or not (The Unknown Known), and tackled Guantanamo Bay, the death penalty and tabloid journalism all with a keen wit and curiosity. Much of that tone is derived from his earlier films, Gates of Heaven, Vernon, Florida and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, which established an interview technique locked onto the subject which allowed the audience to engage in a new and intimate fashion. Over the course of his filmmaking career, though, his stylistic approach has clearly evolved, and part of the reason why is in his ability to experiment with narrative and visual style in his advertising work. Mike Powell, as part of Grantland’s recent Errol Morris Week coverage, wrote a piece about Morris’ work in advertising, in which Morris himself estimated that he’s made around 1000 advertisements.1 Powell’s piece looks a lot at how Morris involvement helped specific brands reshape their image, from the Miller High Life microcosm of blue-collar Americana to his work with Levis.2
“American haiku,” he calls them — microcosmic bursts of narrative that reflect how we live instead of explaining it, suggesting bigger stories without taking the time to retell them.
The haiku is certainly the case with the Miller High Life ads. Each one of them is a 30-second snapshot into a somehow wholly familiar world. It’s a similar tactic used in his ads with Citibank, seemingly the client with the second most amount of Morris-helmed commercials, relying on a simple premise and a focus on natural and personal moments.
Miller High Life — “Old Man Winter” (dir. Errol Morris, 2001 – Wieden + Kennedy)
The assured unseen narrator providing the voice of wisdom and direction, seems to be a trend for Morris, it also appears in his work for Lexus and, more notably, in his ad series for Cisco, with the voiceover provided by magician/historian/actor/writer/living legend Ricky Jay.3
In an interview with Jesse Thorn, Morris spoke specifically about his work with Miller High Life:
I sometimes think my movies will become completely forgotten. No one will watch them, no one will know about them. But what will survive, ultimately, is my Miller High Life commercials. They’re really really good. The writing is extraordinary. I got what we call The Jeffs; Jeff Kling, Jeff Selis, Jeff Williams. It was Errol and The Jeffs that created over 150 Miller High Life commercials. We often wonder, how is it that they let us do this? I think there’s a simple answer: no one was really watching. No one really cared.
Each of the Miller ads are fiction-based, a rarity amongst Morris’ filmography (1991’s poorly-received The Dark Wind the only non-documentary feature that he’s released). The Miller ads aren’t alone, though. His stirring “Ringmaker” spot for Nike centers around a jeweller’s growing fanaticism for LeBron James over his career.4 His work for PBS includes a clever commercial called “Photo Booth”, as part of their ‘Stay Curious’ campaign, which sees an opera singer’s performance in a photo booth transform into a flipbook that matches his music. Even when taking on a car ad for Chevy, he manages to craft a simple and moving narrative about a father and his daughter.5
Chevy – “You And Me” (dir. Errol Morris, 2010 – Publicis Seattle)
One of his major techniques in his ads derives from his usage of the Interrotron, circa 2000, for his television series First Person.6 Through the use of projection and a two-way mirror, the device allows Morris to interview his subject from another room, with his face placed directly in front of the camera lens facing his interviewee. The first advertisement to use the device (which has since become a hallmark of Morris’ style, with particular thanks to The Fog of War and a 2002 short for the Academy Awards), was one in a series he made for Apple, about “the switch” consumers make from PCs.7 In this series of ads, Morris has the subjects talk about the virtues of Apple products, then say their name and occupation after the Apple logo appears on-screen.8 What makes these ads so charming is that Morris isn’t reaching for celebrities, but seemingly average people.9 It’s a tactic he has employed throughout his advertising work; though the Miller ads act to capture the glory of everyday, in his ads for AT&T and BrownCo (amongst many others), he gives the consumer a look at the employees of these companies. They talk about what they do, and how they do it, into the lens. Morris, along with his editing team, follow the same process as many of his interview-based documentaries, distilling these into small moments and oddly profound sentences.10
He does this again in the Levis series, with interviews with younger people about things completely unrelated to jeans, talking about “what’s true”. He harnesses the intimate nature of real people to sell an idea of cool, young people see themselves in the interviewees.11 The interviews themselves are shot on a green screen, but the background placed in are fairly close to the image one would expect – street corners, train station, school. The disconnect between the real (interview) and slightly unreal (background) enhances our connection to the real speaker, one of the most subtly clever elements in Morris’ ad work. Also featuring usage of a green screen is his ad work for EA Sports in 2008. Mostly focused on Madden09, these ads saw subjects ranging from John Madden to Snoop Dogg to a man and his daughter talk about the act of playing the game in front of a green screen, with the background behind them archival footage intermingled with clips from the games they discuss. These ads are a merger of two of his documentary techniques, coupling the Interrotron with the scattergun archival editing he employs in his 2010 feature Tabloid.
EA Sports – “Leon” (dir. Errol Morris, 2008 – Wieden + Kennedy)
This isn’t to say Morris has the Midas touch per se, whilst he’s made some innovative and engaging commercials, he’s definitely phoned it in a few times.12 His work with car company Acura lazily appropriates his knack for interviews with overly scripted gimmick-ridden concepts that feel like pre-packaged ads that grace television screens ad nauseum.13 His one commercial for the US Postal Service, though handsomely shot, felt very generic. His work for Adidas (yes, he did both Nike and these guys), though shot concurrently with some of his Miller High Life ads, is a fairly lukewarm implementation of object-as-thematic drive.14 His work for Best Buy, though not especially bad, might have started the trend of employee stories from megachains, a disappointing foil to his compelling ads with IBM, AT&T and this amusing HP ad.
In charting the recurring elements within his ads relative to his films, it’s also interesting to see how many of the ads feel so far removed from what we’ve come to know as Morris’ directorial style. One element that keeps appearing is the usage of sport to sell non-sporting goods. It makes sense Morris has now moved onto ESPN short films, considering he has managed to use baseball to sell insurance and finance. His choppy editing style in throughout his ads also seems to fit the sport framework, creating an internal sense of tension and rhythm. This Nike ad, in which a 15-year old stares into the camera and claims he’ll race everyone and everything, is a good example of how cutting up an interview gives it a stronger sense of humour and makes it more compelling.15 Another thing he tries more in his ads than his features is the telling of a story sans dialogue or voiceover.16 In his series of ads for Southern Comfort, stories of friendship or connection are told through simple settings and shots. It appears he made two sets of ads for the company, the older ads far superior to the new ones. The most striking of that first crop is set in a bomb shelter that ranks up with the best 30-second work he’s done, with unhinged imagery that feels like a lost cousin to his superb feature Mr. Death.
Trygg-Hansa – “Glasrutan” (dir. Roy Andersson,1977 – Studio 24)
Roy Andersson has made half as many commercials as Errol Morris (this MUBI interview tells us it’s around 500), yet those all saw him hone a distinctive visual style — locked off shots, near-monotonous colour scheme, elaborate and slightly surreal sets that call to mind a Kafkaesque cityscape — in between two feature films, 1975’s infamous flop Giliap and his triumphant (in results, not tone) return to feature-length film, 2000’s Songs from the Second Floor. What’s so clearly interesting about the relationship between his commercial work and his post-2000 feature films (all of which garnered international acclaim, his latest having won the Golden Lion at Venice) is that he seems to have carried over not only visual elements but a pithy narrative style. 2007’s You, The Living plays out almost as a series of sketches, many of which pack a potent emotional punch, leading one to believe Andersson’s commercial playground has perhaps turned him into the Lydia Davis of cinema.
As Andersson’s stature has risen in the world of film festivals, 2000’s Songs from the Second Floor was a major breakthrough, the primary narrative of his career is how few feature films he’s directed. As such, festivals now mine his short film work and his commercials for proof of his evolution as a filmmaker. A program of his advertisements has screened at Rotterdam (2001), in a MoMa retrospective (2009) and, just this year, at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. The runtime of this ‘program’ of ads is seemingly 35 minutes, usually shown with two of his longer short films the total goes to 71 minutes. This 35-minute bundle, handpicked by Andersson himself, has been uploaded to Vimeo by the filmmaker. Some of them are now infamous, shared around on Google Video in the pre-YouTube era, and there’s an oft-cited but unproven Ingmar Bergman quote that “Andersson makes the best commercials in the world.” It should be noted that this is highly unlikely, Bergman was a supervisor at the film school Andersson attended, and told him he would likely have a short career. When later asked about this, Andersson called Bergman a “hack” and also said that “I had no respect for him.”
Looking at the entirety of Andersson’s advertising work, though, it doesn’t appear that the failure of Giliap is what drove him to make commercials; his first advertisement was shot in 1969 for Mum 21 (presumably not the South African deodorant company, though), a year before the release of his debut feature film, the widely acclaimed A Swedish Love Story. He even made ads for Trygg-Hansa, the most well-known advertising series he has done (perhaps akin to Morris’ relationship with Miller High Life), when they were just known as Hansa, with a 30-second commercial called “Sängrökaren” in 1969. There’s not even a notable rise in commercial production between Giliap and Songs from the Second Floor, he maintained a steady pace of production from 1975 through to 2003.
HSB – “Spjälsängen” (dir. Roy Andersson, 1985 – Studio 24)
1991’s World of Glory, his 15-minute short, was the clearest implementation of the techniques he had experimented within in his commercial work. Though his earlier short Something Has Happened, an anti-American film about AIDS from 1987, is the first narrative instance of these sets, it is a world away from the dry absurdity of World of Glory and his subsequent feature films.17 It has been written that his distinct style, with specifically designed sets and colour palette, first coalesced in his 1985 commercial “Spjälsängen”, for Swedish housing co-op HSB. In this commercial, we open on an elderly couple holding a birthday cake, who wander down a hallway to reveal their middle-aged son cramped into a baby’s cot.
In an interview with Vice, Andersson said “above all, it [advertising] has taught me that a fixed image with no cuts communicates more effectively than a panning camera and hysterical editing.” This proof of concept is no clearer than in his 1993 Cannes Lion-winning advertisement for Handelsbanken, where an airline stewardess instructs some men on how to use their parachute when they jump from the plane, only to have herself, the cabin crew and pilots follow suit, stranding the rest of the passengers on an empty plane. It’s a great example of purely visual humour (the dialogue is inconsequential, really) that works through the reveal of elements within a locked on image. It’s a wonderful visual approach to comedy that feels descendent from Tati, but Andersson seems to have carved out his own unique visual style in comedy.18 It seems to be tied up in his philosophy of viewing humanity. When talking with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky for MUBI’s Notebook, there’s this wonderful exchange on the matter:
Vishnevetsky: Chaplin said, “Life is a tragedy in close-up, but a comedy in wide shot.”
Andersson: I’m not sure than I agree with that. I think that the wide shot tells a lot about the human being that a close-up can’t.
In comparing Morris to Andersson we can see a pretty huge contrast in approaches; where Morris would employ his interview style somewhat sparingly, every ad by Andersson feels a step away from a scene in one of his films. The sets aren’t always there, sure, but even his outdoor-set advertisements convey a similar visual wit. Another difference is the use of language, with Morris often using a lot of dialogue on the part of his subjects, relative to how Andersson almost always relies on physical movement within the frame. The insurance commercials he made for Trygg-Hansa are all pieces of slapstick comedy, though less people getting hurt than objects, cars primarily. His string of insurance ads all incorporate an element of fate or luck; as soon as someone organises insurance via phone their car gets destroyed, in the act of fixing a small problem in a house, five more crop up.19
Lotto – “The Bar” (dir. Roy Andersson, 1992 – Observera Grey and Studio 24)
His ads for the Swedish lottery are less concerned with fate than karma. A zealous postman gets home and tosses his son’s toys off the table to watch the lotto numbers be announced on TV. The son runs out of the room, unplugging the power to the living room in the process.20 Another, shot in what looks like an early incarnation of the bar set Andersson would use throughout his ‘living trilogy’ (Songs from the Second Floor, You, the Living and A Pigeon…), sees a man tell everyone in an already-quiet bar to be quiet, before boisterously exclaiming after each number is read out.21 Halfway through the numbers, though, his enthusiasm drops as a man directly behind him in the bar starts to shout. It’s an example of the beautiful simplicity in so many of his commercials, as well as his feature films. The image-based message is done in an even shorter time span in a stirring 1985 commercial for the Socialdemokraterna, where a series of vignettes running no longer than 15 seconds each, and powered by a rare in-your-face soundtrack, showcases slapstick-fuelled bullying culminating in a final title card that reads “Why should we care about each other?”
His more recent work (circa early 2000s) was dominated not by ads for Trygg-Hansa but rather the Swedish Postal Service. In another shift, rather than running with a widespread cast of normal people in self-contained skits, here he uses a recurring character, Lasse, a portly older man shouting about the poor postal service he is receiving.22 Most of the ads featuring Lasse online contain no subtitles, but they aren’t necessary. He’s a pretty hilarious comic persona, shifting from polite conversation to shouty frustration so suddenly. This recurring character element is something he would use throughout all of his recent work, from World of Glory onwards. It’s not the only thing you can clearly see used, either, there are some visual gags he would repeat too. This Air France commercial playing off of queues in airports feels like a rejected alternate take to a similar scene in You, the Living, set in a train terminal.
Both filmmakers have infused personal style into the advertising material on hand, with one of the ultimate virtues being that you will actually want to watch each ad over and over again; they exist in a world of their own, their charm and allure as much their intimate connection as the intriguing oddity — the actual content of the ad is almost secondary to the engagement creatively. The sheer enormity of both Morris’ and Andersson’s contribution to the world of advertising is a daunting thing to delve into, and I’ve only really scratched the surface with this piece, but it’s a means through which to open up a conventional perception of each director; stylistic evolution charted through a parallel visual form. Whilst it’s unlikely I’ll ever purchase insurance from Trygg-Hansa, or import Miller High Life from overseas (we only get Miller Lite here), you can bet I’ll be thinking about those ads for some time.