In Chapter 3 of Moving Images, sound is the primary topic of the unit, and the concluding sections deal with the introduction of advertising and a promotional project for students. For the interview at the end of this chapter, I contacted a former student of mine who has gone on to a highly successful career in advertising. Besides being an extremely talented advertising copywriter and associate creative director at DBB in Chicago,* Kevin Goff provides another inspiring example: a very nice guy who makes it big. Moreover, there are a couple of classroom moments from when he was in high school that I will never forget. First, when we were doing an initial brief in-class project that is designed so that students can get their hands on the cameras and start getting used to filming, Kevin was in a group working at the back corner of the room, essentially a little closet that was about three feet wide. In this cluttered, tiny spot, Kevin — who hadn’t really done much in video until then — directed this amazing little piece (and he was behind the camera) that immediately grabbed the viewer’s attention because he had a jaw-dropping sense of where to place and how to move the camera. Later, his final project for this introductory course was exceptional: he created a take-off from the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider video game that was dynamic, funny, strikingly shot, and clearly the work of a budding ad man: the twist at the end was that it was a “Got Milk?” commercial. And this was made well before the Lara Croft movies starring Angelina Jolie!
What drew you to working in motion picture communications?
I’ve always enjoyed the art of storytelling- be it written, or on film. Advertising provides me with the opportunity to craft stories around a variety of products and human truths. Every day is different, with a different challenge and a different story to tell. As a creative, that’s a fun playground to be in.
What were some useful lessons you learned through your first experiences writing and producing motion pictures?
There’s no right answer. But there are countless wrong answers. And you’ll eventually find countless examples where that’s true. For example, a joke on a script that we’ve been laughing about for weeks, even through auditions, comes out flat when the camera starts rolling. The belly laughs are suddenly replaced by crickets. There’s no explanation for it, but it doesn’t really matter why it’s happening. Because it’s not happening. And you better start writing. Fast. I highly recommend going into a shoot with a good list of prepared alternatives. (They’re easier to write when you don’t have the client, director, producers, and entire film crew waiting on you to be funny.) You never know – an alt may be better than what was originally scripted. But you won’t know until the shoot, or even until you start editing.
What are the standard key positions and the basic work flow for a 30- or 60- second spot?
As a copywriter, a project begins with us getting briefed. We’re told what the assignment is for, the message we’re supposed to communicate, and how much time we have to communicate it – 15, 30, or 60 seconds. It’s then up to us to conceptualize and write an effective, memorable, and entertaining commercial that can be completed on time and within budget. Many scripts will be written, and should one sell, we begin the production process.
Working with a producer, we’ll look at directors and find three or four who we feel are a good fit for the job. We’ll talk to each director about the script, discussing what we envision. After the call, the director writes a treatment for the spot. It’s the director’s chance to present what he envisions the spot to be, and how he wants to tell the story. The agency will take each treatment, and each director’s reel and recommend one director to the client. Once the client buys off on the director, a casting agency the director works with begins casting. We’ll eventually go through casting tapes of actors acting out parts in the script, selecting who we’d like to see called back for another casting session. Once at callbacks, the director has a chance to work with the actors and we all get a better feel for their abilities and can better judge if they’re the best actor for the role or not. At the end of the day, or days, the director and agency selects a cast, sometimes with back-up choices should the client have an issue with someone. We’ll also go over the director’s shooting board and shooting locations, as well as props and wardrobe. Soon, it’s time for the pre-production meeting. While the agency and the director are all on the same page at this point, the pre-pro is designed to get client approvals on everything. Once the client signs off on everything, it’s time to shoot.
Come shoot day, the director runs the shoot. But the agency makes sure they’re getting the performances and shots they need. While a spot often evolves for the better, the client bought a script, and the agency needs to cover what was boarded and sold. That said, I’m still writing new lines on set as the camera is rolling. You have to cover what you sold, but options are good, and those options often turn up in the final cut.
After the shoot, the film is sent to an editing house for an editor to cut. The editor will cut several versions of the spot to show the agency, and from there, the agency chooses a cut and starts tweaking- trying different shots, adding frames to shots, etc. This is also when music becomes an issue. We’ll use scratch tracks as fillers, and eventually either hire a music house to score a piece of music, or find a piece of stock music to drop in. On occasion, we’ll license an artist’s music track. With a spot assembled, we’ll bring it to the client to sell the cut. With the client’s approval, we move on to recording company to record voice-overs, and mix the spot. The sound engineer begins sound design, adding ambient sounds, music tracks, voiceovers, and adjust levels of all sound, while the agency tweaks and approves it. With the spot mixed, it’s on to another post-house for the telecine. Here, the agency works with a colorist to color correct the film, and then finish it, cleaning up the film by applying minor special effects, and adding any necessary legal copy. With the client’s final approval, the spot ships, and it’s onto the next spot.
Can you cite an instance when you were able to find a visual solution to a storytelling issue?
I was working on an assignment involving a movie promotion for a major restaurant chain. I needed to find a way to tell a story that linked together the restaurant chain with the motion picture, and do it in a way that would get people excited to go buy the food and go buy a movie ticket. Additionally, the spot would be running globally so I had to find a solution that didn’t rely on dialogue. Not surprisingly, months went by where no one was able to sell a script. If one side liked a script, the other side didn’t. It’s how these promotions usually go. Eventually I sold a script that satisfied everyone. It was a purely visual comparison of the similar sensory experiences people would enjoy while watching the film and while eating the food. For example, I compared how someone watching an intense action scene in a theater might grip the arm rest of the seat their sitting in, the same way someone might grip their bag of food if they were worried someone was going to steal it.
How do you balance visual storytelling in your pieces with the importance of sound in establishing tone and style and in communicating key information?
There’s more than one way to tell a story. You can do it purely through visuals, without any sound. But you can also tell the same story purely through sound, without any visuals. The balance of visual and sound ultimately comes down to the story you’re trying to tell and how you want to tell it. Any stimuli you choose to include, or choose to omit, communicates something to your audience. It’s up to you to determine just the right combination of stimuli to communicate your story in the most impactful way.
Sound is important in every project I’m involved with. From the music and sound effects, to the dialogue and voice talent, sound is vital to the communication. Music can evoke a variety emotions, add energy- or remove it, and even set a pacing for the film. Sound effects simply help explain what you’re seeing on film, adding a texture to the visual. Voice talent can be a challenge. Male or female. Old or young. And all the different voice qualities you can think of- the slightest variation of which can mean the difference between feeling authentic or fake, and getting laugh or getting crickets. It’s common to audition as many as 400 or so voices just to get the right one. Because without the right voice, the spot might simply not work. Sound is a sensitive thing. It usually works or it doesn’t. And you don’t usually know if it works until you see it put to picture.
What have been some of your observations of the filmmaking process?
Have an opinion. And have a reason for it. Because everyone has an opinion- some good and some bad. Listen with an open mind. Then listen to your gut.
Once you start shooting, anything can happen. Actors you thought could act- can’t. Lines you thought were funny- aren’t. You go from being ahead of schedule, to 4 shots behind. And weather that’s sunny and 80, is suddenly a flash flood washing your set away. Filmmaking is a fluid process. You have to roll with the punches and find solutions- fast.
What have been among your most fulfilling experiences in promotional moviemaking?
Creating television commercials that make people think about something in a way they’ve never thought about it before. And in a way that doesn’t make them want to change the channel.
* Currently (2014), Kevin Goff is a Senior Copywriter at Arnold Boston, where he has produced work for Produced Work For: New Balance, Volvo, Carnival Cruise Lines, and ADT Security.