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How To Direct the One-Take Commercial

A Case Study on producing a tV spot featuring action in a single shot

A well-known creative and scientific genius once said in the 15th century, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."  In more modern times, with his signature minimalist approach, a genius architect famously once said, "Less is more."

While Leonardo DaVinci and Mies van der Rohe didn't work in advertising or commercial production; producers, directors, editors, and cinematographers like to think their work also makes significant additions to the fabric of society, albeit in a more visually fleeting medium. If our journey to produce television ads & digital content for brands is a constant yearning for better, for different, for memorable, then the fruits of our labor can give viewers, and us as content producers, satisfaction in our final cuts.

For a recent project, 88 Brand Partners approached the creative for their client, Citizen's Equity First Credit Union (CEFCU), with this same "less is more" simplicity in their creative. The boards called for most of the spot to be captured in one-take, with the "hero" an inanimate glass of iced-tea, and the levels of tea in the glass symbolizing the status of checking accounts. In an advertising climate wild about the montage approach, the creative in the storyboards & brief was simple, yet effective, and most of all, refreshing. Here are five essential areas that helped us achieve the creative for what was, save the final two shots, a single-take commercial ad!

1. pre-record voiceover

Much like a dancer practicing a routine, to make sure the actions happening in the scene were timed-out correctly we needed to use a "backing track." Calling upon the wonderfully talented Danielle Ezra for our voiceover talent, we were able to pre-record the narration track. We then used audio playback with a countdown so our camera dept. and talent knew when to start, and we captured our takes! One note: we had two options for our voiceover timing, and we had takes for both options. This gave us the ability to shoot several options to COA (cover our ass) during production rather than having to create more options in post!  

2. block out action

Going in tandem with the pre-recorded voiceover track, the next step for us was to spend rehearsal time blocking out the actions of our characters. In studio shoots this is often done the day before in a pre-light session, but this commercial was produced on location so you only have enough time during a tech scout to talk generalities. The morning of the shoot we took the extra time to rehearse, fine-tune, discard what didn't work, and then use the parts that did work with the agency and brand client watching from video village. Once we fine-tuned all the character's movements, and blocked out all the actions with the director, cinematographer Patrick Lewtschanyn, talent, background talent, audio and video village, we were ready to go!  

If our journey to produce television ads & digital content for brands is a constant yearning for better, for different, for memorable; then the fruits of our labor can give viewers, and us as content producers, satisfaction...

3. script supervisor 

Often in television advertising production, the script supervisor is a "nice to have" but not essential component in the production. If you're producing a one-take ad, however, they're absolutely essential. On a base level, our script supervisor, Tony Mendoza, helped director Jeremy Pinckert denote which takes were liked best. More importantly, the script supervisor also took notes during every take to help discern which actions took place vs. others. For example, in one series of takes the talent grabbed both the lemon and sugar packet with his left hand, while in other takes he grabbed the lemon with his left and the sugar with his right.  

Another example was during the close-up shot of our talent signing his credit card, we started with a slip that had the name of our location (the quaint and lovely Bakin' & Eggs, Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL) at the top of the receipt. The camera tilt-panned from below the table to catch the action. The takes were great, but CEFCU doesn't have any branches in Chicago, so we had art department fix the receipt. We then moved on to have the camera tilt-pan from above to catch the signature action, which was a much better shot, but we were reminded by script supervisor to get a take with the other camera action because we needed a take without the location on the receipt. Sound trivial? Every detail in a commercial is important, and this helped us know which version we liked best so we could then film more takes with those particular actions.  

4. video tape recorder (vtr)

In the same vein as the script supervisor, the video assist operator who runs the VTR playback was essential in helping us capture this one-take tv spot in a compelling, believable manner. We found the iced tea cup needed to be centered each time, which we could line-up using the hash marks on camera department's production monitor, but when the talent took a drink of iced tea and then needed to put the iced tea glass back on the table, we needed Jonah Ravine to use VTR to ghost an image of previous takes to make sure each take was lined-up. We also utilized VTR to play back each take and analyze the performance & location of our hero prop.

True story--after several takes we noticed the talent, when ripping the sugar open and pouring the packet, would inevitably get sugar grains on the table. VTR pointed out the granules, and we were able to compensate for future takes, but post-production ended up painting out the sugar anyway. Apparently, sugar is like a sneeze in its inherent tendency to be uncontainable!

VTR was actually even-more indispensable in the creative for the second commercial in this campaign, where the creative called for matching frames and location of another hero vessel. You can see this spot, "Everything You Want", below!

5. art department

Did you know fake ice cubes look great but can't be stirred with a straw? Or finding two glasses which are exactly the same in shape and glass quality is more difficult than it seems? Caton Volk, the head of our art department for this ad production, knows these facts from experience, and that is why hiring great prop masters and art department heads make such a difference. They were able to help us make sure these findings didn't stop our production. They found us un-branded sugar packets and tabasco containers, showed us the visual differences between real and fake ice cubes, and ordered enough of the iced-tea glasses to make sure we had a matching set.  

Why need a matching set if this was all one-take? We had an inkling in pre-production, which was confirmed during rehearsals: drinking the half-glass of iced tea to appear "low" was not possible in this small amount of on-screen time. While you're watching the spot, when the talent picks up the hero glass, takes a drink, and sets it back down -- what is actually happening off-screen is our prop master handing a replacement double glass with our talent in one quick motion. Wallah, these are just a few of the tricks of the trade in the art department of television commercial productions. 

Hopefully this quick read has helped shed light on how to direct a one-take commercial. You never know when the creative brief or film script will call for a one-take sequence, but you'll be armed with some behind the scenes tips to help you when this does arise.  

We do want to send a special kudos to our main talent Ruben Adorno, represented by Stewart Talent. We found out later this was actually director Jeremy Pinckert's second time working with Ruben, previously he was cast as a Delivery Rider in this "Haves vs. Have-Dones" spot for Groupon. The actions he had to get down and time out were actually much harder than they looked, but he was able to pull it off after a few rehearsals and his takes were almost always spot-on.  He had to pickup the glass, quickly exchange it with a glass double, then replace the glass in the exact same spot on the table. The he had to grab a lemon with his left hand, open a sugar-packet with his right hand without spilling, and then stir the unstirrable fake ice cubes, all during specifically timed-out points during the 30-second window.  Also special thanks to our Producer, Seth Deahl, for putting together a smooth, flawless commercial production set. 

Watch "Everything You Want" below!

Watch the Branding Spot from this campaign:  "Growing Together"


Explore Media editor Garret Brubaker put together this awesome Cinemagraph based on the Iced Tea glass.  It currently is the number one cinemagraph of ALL TIME on!  View the cinemagraph below, or on Reddit here! 

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