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From Docs to Dollars: When Nonfiction Filmmakers Moonlight in Music Videos and Commercials

By Darianna Cardilli

John Williams, a structural surveyor, high atop the Hull Bridge, from a Dr. Marten's commercial shot by Doug Pray. Photo: Charles Peterson

Shoestring budgets, borrowed equipment, deferred pay, intermittent and interminable production schedules—these have become the required ingredients in a formula all too familiar to documentary filmmakers. Despite their comparatively small budgets, documentaries are still notoriously difficult to finance. So it's particularly ironic that in recent years many documentarians have ventured into the world of commercials and music videos, lending their talents to projects that, in terms of dollars per second of finished product, are lavish by comparison. This temporary migration has become an innovative and creative way for nonfiction filmmakers to finance their docs—or subsidize expenses between grant checks.

But are there hidden costs in this Faustian pact? And how difficult is the transition from being your own boss to becoming a hired gun, without as much autonomy? According to Doug Pray, acclaimed director of Hype and Scratch, "You're not always your own boss on any project. Sometimes you find yourself completely at the will of your subject, your financier, your producer and others around you, for whatever reason.

"The biggest shift with commercial projects," Pray continues, "is getting used to having an agency creative team surrounding you, whispering ideas in your ear, urging changes, making suggestions. Sometimes this input is detrimental and sometimes it's incredibly beneficial. But there's no going it alone, so you essentially have the choice to work with the powers that be or fight them, and have a miserable experience. The key is to make sure you're in full agreement on the general vision when you begin. If you are, it will be synergetic. I've found that it's often wonderful to have a few more people looking out for your best intentions. You're all after the same concept of excellence.

"When I'm open to suggestions and criticisms on location, I'm a better director," Pray notes. "When an agency writer is looking out for me—seeing things I might not have noticed—then my work improves. For me, it took some getting used to the other voices on location, but often they are pushing me in ways that I wouldn't if I were alone-and that's a great thing."

Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger, directors of the critically acclaimed METALLICA: Some Kind of Monster, have been equally successful in the fields of commercials and music videos. The key, according to Berlinger, is to embrace the challenge of serving the client while also trying to fulfill your creative vision. Yet, he stresses, "I make serving the client a priority. If you are not prepared to make that mental shift, commercial directing becomes frustrating and unrewarding."

Sinofsky adds that since the client has to live with the final product longer than you do, it is inevitable that you will have many masters to please on many levels, and you have to get used to sharing the front seat with a group of people. However, he points out, "They're hiring you for your expertise and they usually have a great deal of respect for you, so if handled right, it will go smoothly. The production process is a collaboration; hopefully there's a shared vision for the final product. If not, it can get a little sticky."

But Berlinger notes that the tighter production schedule will also sharpen certain skills. "The speed at which these projects appear and the need [for them] to be executed require developing a discipline for trusting your gut and going with it," he says. Since commercials and music videos short-circuit the process of finding the story while shooting, his payoff comes from focusing on the "immediate gratification" of a finished product.

The exposure to bigger budgets and more complex logistics is also a valid and useful experience that can be applied to smaller projects. Pray maintains that directing commercials has changed his interviewing style: "In commercially related projects there's often the need to get specific statements or direct quotes from the subject that are honest but sought-after by the concept of the campaign. Instead of getting a good quote and moving on, I've had to learn to get more 'takes,' or repeated statements. For example, if I hear something that's completely on-point with the campaign, I will circle back: 'Let's talk about that again—what did you mean? Would you mind repeating that again so that I truly understand it?' This is something from the ad world that will forever affect my documentary interviews: the realization that it's okay, and powerful, to ask your subject to repeat things you like, to focus more and more on the key concepts you're after."

In addition, the sizeable increase in crew requires a different set of managerial and organizational skills. As Sinofsky explains, "In docs you work with a small, intimate group; in commercials you work with a small army." He suggests surrounding yourself with the best and brightest in their field, so you will navigate a lot better.

Yet perhaps the greatest difference between these two worlds is that commercials and music videos have a specific vision of the final product at the start of filming, which typically does not exist in the documentary world. "A video has a song to interpret," Sinofsky notes. "A commercial has been 'boarded,' so you have a starting point. A great documentary is a journey that you don't know where it will take you. I kind of wear different hats for each. With a doc, you let things happen as they will. With a video or commercial you push and shove and guide it where you want.

"Anything that you learn in commercials can be brought to your documentary work," Sinofsky continues. "Knowledge is power, and being able to use it is key. Working with large groups and being able to communicate well makes it easier to work with a small group."

The benefits seem to flow both ways, as nonfiction is an excellent training ground for directing narrative or commercial projects. Pray asserts that making documentaries makes one a better director because one has to be aware of all of the elements of filmmaking and be ready to make decisions about all of them, all the time.

"That's why docs are so exciting," Pray says. "There's no guarantee of any outcome, so you're constantly thinking about editing and camera and lighting and sound and what the subject's gonna do and the schedule and the crew. It's so stressful, but it's good stress! It's the ultimate live filmmaking."

In addition to tapping into documentarians' instincts for cinematic multi-tasking and cost efficiency and effectiveness, record label executives favor the unique sensibility that doc makers bring to the world of music: authenticity. As Berlinger points out, narrative and music video directors "have traditionally put rock stars on a pedestal and made them larger than life. Documentarians have the ability to humanize bands and thereby make them more accessible to their fans. This is particularly effective in this era of reality TV, where everyone seems to be 'revealing' themselves in front of a television audience."

And, most importantly, Sinofsky adds, "Documentary filmmakers understand the rhythm of people's lives. All of your collective experiences with people from trailer parks, farming communities or homeless shelters will allow you to have a greater understanding than a traditional narrative filmmaker. In making the Metallica film, Joe and I got into the band's essence. I think the industry is beginning to understand that we go well beyond the surface in creating something special."

Similarly, the advertising industry is drawn to documentary makers for their interviewing skills. Nowadays, jaundiced consumers find actors or voiceovers less credible than ordinary citizens. Corporations have wisely realized that allowing an average American to speak directly to the public can sometimes be more effective than scripted and staged testimonials. A notable example of this rise in populist advertising is Academy Award-winning filmmaker Errol Morris' series of ads for the political activist entity MoveOn.Org, as well as his campaigns for Volkswagen, Miller Brewing Co., ABC and Adidas, to name a few.

According to Pray, this trend is being driven by the quest for the "real," which goes in waves. "In pop music, styles go from synthetic and processed and fabulously over-produced, to raw and edgy and simple and stark, and back again," he explains. "Same thing in movies and ads—from lavish productions to cinema vérité and back again. Right now we're enjoying a period where reality is 'in.' May it last a lifetime."

So how does this transition occur? Berlinger already had extensive knowledge of the advertising world, having been an ad agency producer and an executive producer for TV commercials for Albert and David Maysles. Pray swore he would never do a commercial in his entire life—until the day he got a call Allen and Albert Hughes (for whom he edited American Pimp) asking him to fill in for them on a doc-style Adidas commercial.

"From the moment I said 'yes,'" Pray recalls, "it was an incredible experience so new and different from anything I'd been through. It was exciting, challenging, weird and fun. And they actually paid me, which was an entirely new and shocking experience to a documentarian."

But crossing into the world of commercials and music videos is not an easy road, and is unlikely to occur unless previous documentary work has garnered a number of awards or has strong commercial appeal. The field is extremely competitive, even without the new influx of talent from the documentary community. As Berlinger cautions, "The market is glutted with directors who only make commercials for a living. You must really want to do this for aesthetic reasons. If it is simply to make some money, you probably don't have the passion it requires to break through the competition."

"In this business, you hear 'no' a lot more than 'yes,'" Sinofsky cautions. "Take advantage of those opportunities, [because] in every filmmaking experience you learn something. It may be [something] technical, but if you are lucky, you learn something about yourself. The Metallica film taught me a great lesson: working closely with a partner is a great gift! Joe and I had sort of forgotten the magic that two people bring to a project; this experience reminded us of the great value of collaboration."


Darianna Cardilli is a Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker and editor.