By Christopher McKittrick
Like nearly all film school students, you probably dream of helming a multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbuster… except at the moment you’re finding it difficult to come up with those millions to spend on your vision.
In the film industry (as in any industry), working your way up to the top is a time-honoured tradition. One way you can build your career is by displaying your talent with some of the shortest narrative films there are: commercials.
Many successful filmmakers like David Fincher, Zack Snyder, Michael Bay, and Ridley Scott and entire animation studios like Pixar spent their earliest years making commercials, which soon led to more exposure and greater opportunities. In fact, two of the estimated 2000 commercials that Scott directed – his 1973 spot for Hovis bread and his 1984 Super Bowl spot for Apple – have been cited by many in the industry as two of the most influential television commercials in advertising history.
Furthermore, commercials aren’t just for beginners in the industry. Many established filmmakers have created commercials after winning acclaim for their features, including heavy hitters the likes of Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson, and Spike Jonze. Even for these award-winning filmmakers, no project is too small for their talents; working for a commercial-producing company might just give you the incredible opportunity to work with one of these filmmakers.
Commercial work may be appealing to you because paid opportunities are often plentiful, especially with so many commercials being produced now for internet platforms and streaming services. It also allows you to develop additional skills that you can utilize across various media platforms and create a reel of professional work.
You might find yourself following a similar career path as Dan Longfellow, a Senior Motion Graphic Designer at the global entertainment company WWE. Longfellow’s first job in the industry was working as an infomercial tape copier and editor. He later worked as an Assistant Compositor job at a post-production agency. At the agency, Longfellow completed work on commercial spots for big-name brands, including Budweiser, Diet Coke, Xyzal, and Listerine. Commercials that he worked on aired globally, including during the most-watched television event of the year, the Super Bowl.
Longfellow learned numerous important skills from working on commercials. He says, “There is always the challenge of how to fit all content that is requested, or needed into such a short period of time. You quickly learned how to tighten up a cut or mention to the client that there is too much content, and suggest what you could possibly take out. I could provide alternate cuts to show clients how their cut would look with different sections taken out, or sped up, and so on.”
He also supplemented his commercial experience by working on a web series titled The Professionals, which allowed him to experiment and polish skills that he could utilize in his commercial work. He recalls, “I taught myself Cinema 4D to move into a more 3D motion graphic designer position. With that knowledge, I was able to get a position at WWE.”
Longfellow creates graphics for the WWE’s live programming and subscription-based video streaming service, WWE Network. He also modifies graphics for the company’s international broadcasts and customizes graphics for live arena events based on the individual arena video screen layouts.
This year, Longfellow worked on the graphics for WrestleMania, the company’s biggest annual event. This year’s WrestleMania was attended by 75,000 WWE fans and was watched by nearly 2 million viewers on the WWE Network – all of whom saw his work in action. “Participating in WrestleMania was more spectacular than I ever could have imagined,” Longfellow says. “I take great pride in knowing that I helped in the production of that show.”
Like David Fincher and Ridley Scott before you, you can put yourself on the path to future success by developing your filmmaking skills with commercials. Whether you aspire to create feature films, visual effects, or digital content as an independent artist or working for a global media brand, displaying your talent on a small-scale project can eventually pay off in a very big way.
Want to read more about how others got started in the industry? Check out the links below: