Designing for Commercials
October 7, 2013
From Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World,” to Progressive’s wildly chirpy, ruby-lipped Superstore cashier Flo, some of the most iconic American pop culture figures in recent memory are commercial characters. Tattooed in our cultural consciousness for their charm, their persistence, or their general ridiculousness, their popularity is due in large part to the work of costume designers. While some concerns (like budget and preparation time) permeate all categories of costume design, here varied CDG members shed light on elements that make the commercial design process distinct from designing for feature films and television series.
Time, Budget & Turnaround
For the most part, a costume designer working on a commercial shoot is responsible for creating immediately identifiable archetypes. The costume designer has a mere matter of seconds to present a “mom,” “dad,” “sassy teenage daughter” or “grumpy professor” (the list goes on) to the viewer. Some costume designers book a one-off (single) commercial project, while others book an entire campaign. In both cases, it is imperative that these archetypes are executed and that viewers can recognize their roles right away.
“I’ve heard that for every commercial, which runs anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds on average, the product is featured for seven seconds. So essentially, I have 23 seconds to tell a story,” explains Costume Designer Roseanne Fiedler. Fiedler’s recent high-profile credits include her contributions to campaigns for Capital One and Swiffer (she was nominated for CDGA Excellence in Costume Design honors for each, taking home the award for her work on Swiffer’s “Country Dirt Cowgirl” commercial in 2012). She has also designed for 21st Century Insurance and Sprint, among others.
As with costume designers working on feature films and television series, commercial costume designers count prep time and budget concerns among their greatest challenges. Furthermore, last minute casting occurs often, giving the commercial costume designer a very short window for fittings and interacting with his or her actors.
“A main difference between feature and commercial is the time and money—building a lot, but fast, too,” says Costume Designer Bobbie Mannix. “Also we need to think very creatively because we don’t have the luxury of building things all the time, we have to piece things together with what’s available at the time.” The designer, who to date has designed for over 2,400 commercials, points specifically to post 9/11 budget cuts, noting that prior to the attack she averaged approximately 50 commercials a year and since then, roughly 40 a year.
“Working on commercials—whether it is designing, pulling at a costume house or shopping for the latest modern look at department stores and malls—seems to happen a lot faster than movies or TV,” says Costume Designer Julie Vogel, the design mastermind behind Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man Alive” campaign (for which she’s earned CDGA Excellence in Costume Design nominations for the past three consecutive years). Additionally, she’s designed for Starbucks, Advil, T-Mobile, Coca Cola and Priceline, among others.
“On a basic project, prep time is short – two to three days, four if you are lucky,” Vogel explains. “When I do bigger campaigns like Dos Equis, I usually have 7-10 days prep and extra assistance, thankfully. In that campaign there can be anywhere from 100 to 200 costumes, depending on the year and vignettes. About a third of those looks are on background talent that haven’t been pre-fit!”
Speaking to the short prep time and last minute casting issue, Costume Designer Mindy Eshelman (who has designed commercial spots for companies including AT&T, Advil, Guitar Hero, Adidas and VISA, among others) says, “Actors don’t really have much say in what they’re wearing. It’s really about the client being happy. Whereas actors do have a say in film and TV, and I did film for a long time. . . I was really surprised when I did my first commercial, because I [had been] so used to collaborating with actors.”
Further pressurizing the commercial costume designer’s job is the fact that he or she is expected to produce the same breadth of work (both the complexity of the designs called for, and the sheer number of them needed) as a feature film or television series designer, who typically have a longer prep period to get the job done. It can be an exhaustive process.
Costume Designer Michelle Martini (who has designed commercial spots for brands including MasterCard, CBS, CareerBuilder.com, Microsoft and Direct TV), points to a massive J.C. Penney shoot she did this past year, in which the storyline traced fashion from ancient Rome through the 50s. “We dressed 450 people with one week of prep time and budget of about $100,000,” she says.
Similarly, Costume Designer Laura Angotti was tasked with designing a Men’s Warehouse commercial that also showcased fashion over time. She was responsible for a group of looks spanning the 70s, 80s and 90s through the present, and her team turned around 120 looks total in a single day. “I got to do a ton of research. It really is like doing a whole movie, just condensed into a week-and-a-half period,” Angotti says.
Considering the number, variety or complexity of shots taken on a commercial shoot, and having no control over which shots will be scrapped on the cutting room floor, the commercial costume designer is hard-pressed to cover his or her bases and design as thoroughly as possible. For one Swiffer commercial, for example, Fiedler was tasked with making her female leads look “attractively dirty” from head-to-toe. The actresses she was designing for weren’t supposed to “look dirty,” but as they were portraying actual “dirt,” they needed to emulate it completely. Fiedler toyed with a series of textured fabrics and referenced keyboard fuzz and dust bunnies for inspiration. She worked with F/X companies to produce fabric samples and ultimately nailed a trendy-dirty, dusty “Sex and the City”-vibe for her actresses, producing “dirt” down to their shoes and earrings.
Creative Control vs. Opportunity
Another huge distinction setting commercial projects apart from feature films and television series is the number of teams involved, and the fact that at the end of the day, the costume designer is responsible for helping to sell a product. On a commercial project, the costume designer reports to the shoot’s director and producer, the advertising agency’s appointed creative team, and the client behind the product. In this regard, the costume designer may need to relinquish creative control because there are so many parties to please and get approvals from.
“It’s politically different [from designing for feature film and television series],” Martini says. “You’re working with advertising, so the markets are researched and the client has a specific idea of the market that they’re trying to reach. On the creative side, you’ve got the director and the ad agency. So you’re stuck between those two worlds, client and creative. And I’ve found that aside from casting, clothing is the one aspect of commercial production that the client tends to chime in on, so I always come to the fittings with lots of clothes!”
Eshelman says, “The greatest challenge is that you get one fitting, your director is there, the creative is there, the client is there, and your actor is there. You have to get it right, and right then. You need to cover yourself: if the sizes you brought are off from what they said the actors’ sizes are, or say the director switches the color palette, you need to have backups just in case. You have to have it all there on the day, because you’re in the hot seat and you have to produce on the spot.”
This can be a daunting process, says Angotti. “Often I feel like my creative whim is crushed a bit on commercials,” she says, because it feels less like developing a character and more like simply dressing an actor. “Sometimes you’ll have the most beautiful, creative idea, but someone on the agency or creative team will shoot it down and opt for something safe, like ‘oh, another Old Navy button down’. . . You learn not to take it personal.”
Additionally, product categories can have a large bearing on the overall creative vision guiding a shoot, says Mannix. The commercial vet stresses that over time, specific schools of advertising, (namely cars and liquors) have become overtly fashion-forward, with a proclivity for more avant-garde visuals. The pressure to be cutting-edge is ever present, and the atmosphere is extremely competitive.
On a positive note, the need to please both the creative and client sides forces the costume designer to put his or her creative gears into overdrive. Despite the time constraints and approval challenges involved, costume designers who work heavily in commercials endorse them for the creative challenges and variety they pose.
“The best aspect of designing for commercials is the fact that you have so much creative opportunity. That challenge can be so stimulating. I never see it as an obstacle, I’m always encouraged by it,” Martini says. “I started in features and TV, and I’d never had the opportunities to design as much variety.”
One of her most beloved projects to date is a French commercial she designed for European phone service provider Orange showcasing iconic vampires throughout history (like Nosferatu and Dracula), as well as a re-imagining of the classic 80s Grey Poupon commercial (this one involves a car chase), which debuted during this year’s Oscars.
Speaking to the appeal of various projects, Angotti says, “It’s different week to week—you get to clean the slate and start over again. I feel like that’s really fun and refreshing. And you can be on a ‘bad’ project and know that it’s going to end pretty quickly. . . not you know, six months later [like it would for a feature film]. I just had three weeks of shoots for Comcast, for football [season], and I feel like I just did a small movie. We had that many clothes, looks and changes.”
Thus, the commercial costume designer is consistently dogged to be humble, flexible and think outside the box, on a tight budget and an even tighter schedule. The general consensus among these experts is that it is crucial for new and aspiring costume designers to recognize the many hats they’ll wear in the world of commercials.
“There’s a misconception that commercial costume designers are simply stylists,” says Mannix, “and the whole world thinks they’re a stylist, from a young age, starting at the mall. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about getting an education in every period, and the most important thing is for the young ones to get schooling in fashion and costume design, and then experience in the costume houses. They have to learn stock, sizing—so many things. In commercials, you have to watch every dollar, every minute of the day. There’s budget, money, returns. . . it’s a lot to keep track of, but it sure is fun!”