The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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How many great movies got their start as a TV commercial?

March 17, 2009 |  5:36 pm

If you want to see the future of film, all you have to do is keep your hand off the TiVo clicker and watch TV commercials. The ads we see on TV (along with music videos) are where the rubber meets the road, the creative oasis where a host of great filmmakers do R&D for the new techniques and technology that will pop up down the road in bigger, more ambitious feature films. A timely example is this new Comcast "Dream Big" ad, which features a dazzling combination of live action and animated backdrops. As Seth Stevenson's smart piece in Slate explains, the ad is especially hypnotic because the camera never cuts: "It zooms in and out and pans around, but it's all one seamless journey through what appears to be a fully realized, bustling, imaginary neighborhood."

Expect to see variations on that stylist theme on the big screen sometime soon. No one knows more about how the style and technique from 30-second spots migrates to Hollywood better than Steve Golin, who runs Anonymous Content, whose hugely successful commercial and music video divisions feature the work of such top filmmakers as David Fincher, Mark Romanek, Alfonso Cuaron and Gore Verbinski.

For years, any number of directors, led by Fincher, who is a founding partner at Anonymous, have experimented with new ideas and techniques that later came to fruition in their films. When Tarsem Singh, one of Fincher's close pals, made "The Fall" a few years ago, he actually shot much of the film in the same locations as his commercials, flying the actors to faraway islands and mountain valleys, piggybacking much of the film onto the work he was doing on his commercial shoots. If you look at Fincher's ads and videos, which are on display at Anonymous' website, you can see him trying out all sorts of new visual touches that aren't that far removed from the ideas in his features.

The most striking example is his Nike "Fate" commercial, which debuted last fall, just weeks ahead of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." The spot is full of "Button"-style flourishes, following the growth of two NFL stars, LaDainian Tomlinson and Troy Polamalu, from in utero to boyhood to their crunching, gladiator-style meeting as grown men on the football field. (You can watch the clip at the end of this post.) As Golin explains, commercials are an irresistible testing ground for filmmakers.

"You have the opportunity to try out new technology without being stuck with it for the entire course of a film," he explains. "Commercials give filmmakers the chance to experiment where the stakes aren't so high. You also get to work with crew people for a couple days who might turn out to be people you'd want to hire for a whole film. It's a great way to do laboratory work with someone else's money. If it works, you can adapt it to a movie. If it doesn't, it isn't on your resume forever. It's the difference between a sprint and a marathon."

One of Golin's favorite filmmakers, Joe Kosinski, is embarking on a new version of the sci-fi classic "Tron" for Disney. But what sold the studio on Kosinski, who'd never directed a feature before, was a series of car commercials he did. When he was shooting music videos early in his career, Fincher built up a great rapport with Digital Domain, who did the effects for Fincher's classic "Love Is Strong" Rolling Stones video.

"All that work early on forged a real relationship, which is why David had Digital Domain do the complicated R&D work on 'Benjamin Button,' " says Golin, who has produced a number of films with directors associated with Anonymous, including Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" and Michel Gondry's "The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." "David sees commercials as a great testing ground for a technical issue. He'd often come up with an idea he wanted to try out technically and pitch it over and over, for an ad campaign, until he found someone who'd let him do it. There's tons of stuff in 'Benjamin Button' that he clearly first developed doing commercials."   

But enough of this talk. The proof is in the pudding. If you've seen "Benjamin Button," watch this Nike spot Fincher directed last year, which displays Fincher's visual imagination at its best (along with a rhapsodic Ennio Morricone score that would've been right at home in "Button" as well):