Icarus – Chapter Twenty

Once upon a time I found myself on a shoot for the southern Californian restaurant chain, the Hamburger Hamlet. The commercial featured four very successful corporate executives, each of whom had two or three sentences that they had to deliver in front of the camera. One of the executives – a man of about fifty in an Italian tailored suit, was a vice-president at the Disney Corporation.

He was, no doubt, a successful and accomplished corporate jet-setter – clearly at home in the executive board room. But on the soundstage, he was a fish out of water. He could not, for the life of him, deliver one useable take. The pressure of being before the cameras, under the bright lights, surrounded by bored grips and electricians dressed in t-shirts, Levi’s and work boots, put him out of his comfort zone. He could neither read the teleprompter nor remember his lines. It was unbelievably humiliating for this poor fellow.

It went on for hours. We did one-hundred and two takes before he was finally released. I imagined he probably broke down in tears when he got home that night.

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In 1990, the director Boyd Jacobson and I went to Los Angeles to shoot a commercial for Hoehn Motors, a car dealership in San Diego County. Someone had recommended a local production coordinator named Lisa Nevius. I hired her and she and I got along very well. We even became friends. Lisa was from Hell’s Kitchen in west Manhattan. A fearless production coordinator, she was as tough as a two-dollar steak.

Brad Bird’s cast of characters for “Family Dog,” 1987

Lisa’s sister was married to a gifted animator from Corvallis, Oregon, named Brad Bird. Brad lived in Los Angeles and worked as a creative consultant, punching up the scripts for The Simpsons TV series. He’d done one excellent animated episode of Stephen Spielberg’s Amazing Stories TV series called The Family Dog. Brad had a lot of connections in the industry, but at that time he had few offers to direct.

Animators are quirky people, including Brad. He had a dark impenetrable quality. Brad had PTSD. Years before, members of his family had been murdered and it was he who had discovered their corpses.

Boyd Jacobson, the director with him I had been working, had died suddenly. I was still trying to find a new director with whom to work. I hadn’t had much work since Boyd’s death and was running out of money.

Lisa and I both knew TV commercial production, inside and out. After much consideration, we decided to see if we could launch Brad Bird as a live action TV commercial director.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, we’d picked the wrong guy.

Brad had no real interest directing TV commercials, creatively he felt they were somewhat beneath him. Brad was quite talented in a number of ways, and had lots of creative ideas, but he was often unfocussed, self-absorbed, and not a team player.

His loyalties were apparently to himself.

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Adam Miller (left) and Lisa Nevius (right), 1992

Brad Bird was, as Dorothy Parker put it, a rhinestone in the rough.

Lisa and I had each invested $15,000 of our own money in our endeavor to launch Brad’s TV commercial career. Brad didn’t invest a dime. I had borrowed the money from my father, I was so broke at the time.

Back in 1992, everything on Brad’s reel was old-fashion ink and paint cel animation; he didn’t have any live action at all. I knew a small local ad agency that needed a broadcast PSA for the Contra Costa County AIDS Project and we sold them on the idea of letting Brad direct it, as an opportunity to get some live action footage for his director’s reel. I the agency had practically no budget for this project, so we did it on the cheap. We successfully licensed Marvin Gaye’s recording of “What’s Going On,” which help get the message across.

Brad came up with a few concepts for spec TV commercials – not an actual ad for an agency or for broadcast, but rather a demo conceived and shot on our nickel to showcase Brad’s directorial abilities in the thirty-second medium.

Brad was at his best thinking of great ideas that were totally out of left field and, ironically, rarely applicable to the task at hand.

Guy Needham (left) agency creative on the AIDS Project of Contra Costa County shoot, and Brad Bird (right) 1992

For example, one afternoon we were sitting in a restaurant going over the casting for the AIDS Project shoot when, out of the blue and completely off-topic, Brad had a sudden vision – his own twist on one of the then-popular “Just Do It” Nike shoe TV commercials that featured African American male basketball superstars.

In Brad’s version, it was, instead, an African American woman, wearing a pair of Nike’s, while dunking a basketball that shatters the glass backboard. This was filmed in super-slow motion and projected in reverse, beginning with abstract shots the shattered glass dancing on the floor, then rising up into the air, reuniting to form the glass backboard, just as the basketball coming up through the hoop, and Althea Ford – then the shortest woman to ever dunk a basketball – emerges into the frame, revealing the player’s gender for the first time.

It was a clever and fresh idea that was very much in tune with the broadcast campaign Nike shoes was currently running on TV. We spent most of our $30,000 seed money to shoot this spot in 35mm, using Chris Nibley is the Director photography. We called in all our favors and used up all our outstanding good will to pull off this ambitious shoot.

The final edited piece was quite arresting. We were all quite happy with the results. The spot was as interesting as anything Nikes ad agency was coming up with that year. The spot made Brad’s director’s reel considerably more appealing to advertising agencies.

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In 1993, things had gotten really weird in the once predictable world of broadcast television advertising. Michael Ovitz, a former William Morris agent, had formed the rival Creative Artists Agency, which also handled motion picture talent. Soon, CAA began dabbling in TV commercials.

The Coca-Cola company maintains a very large and consistent presence in international broadcast television advertising. In 1992, Coca-Cola placed Ovitz’s CAA in charge of much of its marketing campaign, to work alongside their regular advertising agency McCann Erickson.

The hypothesis was that CAA could use its stable of creative talent to make better TV commercials. In a word, this hypothesis was unprecedented and unproven.

Ovitz put Len Fink and Shelly Hochron in charge of the Coke broadcast campaign. Fink had been with the Chiat/Day/Mojo advertising agency. Hochron, an outsider to the ad agency world, was a feature film studio marketing executive whose credits included Reds (1981) and Stand By Me (1986). You may remember the cute computer-animated polar bears drinking bottes of Coke – that was Shelly’s baby.

Fink and Hochron conceived a series of Coke commercials for the international TV broadcast market, all centered around the unifying concept “Killing a Thirst.”

As it happened, Brad Bird was represented by CAA.

On the strength of the Nike spec commercial on Brad’s reel, Len Fink invited Brad to submit ideas for the “Killing a Thirst” campaign. The concept Fink and Hochron selected from Brad’s submitted ideas was a thirty-second spot featuring a combination live action and classic ink and paint animation – like Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh(1945).

Lisa and I bid the job as a first-class, big budget shoot – the bigger the budget, the bigger our mark-up. Lisa’s strongest suit was live action production. At this she was pretty masterful. So, it fell to me to estimate the animation and postproduction portion of the job.

At this time in history, the entire film industry was rapidly going digital – so rapidly, that it was becoming harder and harder for postproduction houses to make any money. They’d buy an expensive, state-of-the-art machine and, before they could get enough days of rental to pay for its purchase, the technology would change and that machine would become obsolete, replaced the following year by a new, more advanced version.

Conventional ink and paint artist works on a cel from Disney’s “Pinocchio,” 1940

For decades, animators had used horse-hair brushes and jars of paint to “ink and paint,” each and every animation cel, by hand. With twenty-four frames per second, it requires a phenomenal amount of labor to produce the hundreds of illustrations that create thirty seconds of animated film.

Dylan W. Kohler was a brilliant young man who worked at the Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank. In the early 1990s, Kohler invented Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) – a computer-based electronic ink and paint, revolutionizing the animation process. Instead of the old brushes and jars of paint, now the “ink and paint” artist worked with a mouse, a mouse pad, and a computer screen. It was faster and cheaper.

The Disney Corporation is run like a penitentiary. They offered Kohler an ultimatum: either sell his electronic ink and paint patent to the corporation for one dollar, or face being fired an subjected to an industry-wide blacklist. Kohler who had a young wife and small child to support, acquiesced.

Our Coke spot would be the very first TV commercial in history to use the brand new electronic ink and paint technique.

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Michael Ovitz, head of CAA, 2009

Drafting the postproduction estimate was tricky, due to the rapidly changing, ever evolving, and yet unproven digital technology. This was the source of much concern in the following months. Day after day, I would sit in the production office, revising the postproduction schedule over and over. My partner Lisa would walk down the hall, glance into my office to see me changing schedule for the ninetieth time and roll her eyes. She thought I was losing my mind.

But Lisa and I were happy ­– our own little mom and pop production company was producing an international spot for one of the highest-visibility agencies and clients in the industry. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. It looked as if we had gambled well and wisely with our modest $30,000 seed money.

But CAA wasn’t an advertising agency. They lacked both the culture and the experienced players found at any real ad agency. My counterparts at CAA weren’t fluent in TV commercial production. They hadn’t come up through the ranks on the film crew, as Lisa and I had. And they didn’t understand the risks and routines inherent in TV commercial production. The CAA brass were mostly junior talent agents who shortsightedly slashed standard line items from my budget that any experienced producer would have known were inalienable expenses. This was a big red flag that soon became a constant source of irritation.

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Agency producer Karen Monté (left) and cinematographer Chris Nibley (right) on the AIDS Project of Contra Costa County shoot, 1992

Lisa and I had each invested $15,000 of our own money; Brad hadn’t invested and money of his own.. At one point, during the bidding process, I had to sit Brad down and talk to him about money.

I explained to him that he would only be paid a director’s fee. He was not a principal in the production company. He was not sharing in the risk and therefore would not share in the profits. His cut was getting great live action footage for his director’s reel. Brad was busy working on The Simpsons (for which he was receiving a regular paycheck) as well as a number of other outside projects. Lisa and I were now self-employed and unavailable for our regular freelance clients. Additionally, we were paying for every expense and hospitality, including every restaurant meal Brad ate while working on our job.

Adam Miller (left) and Brad Bird (right) 1992

I told Brad to specify an amount of money large enough that he wouldn’t have to come back later and ask for more. I made it very clear that whatever amount he chose today would be the amount he was going to paid, no matter what happened.

I looked him in the eye and explained that this was business, and that this discussion would be our verbal contract – binding and not subject to negotiation after our meeting. I recommend that he think about it for a few days, so he would never regret his decision.

After some consideration, Brad informed me that he wanted to be paid a director’s fee of $40,000. This was a reasonable figure and I put it in the budget.

By the time the job was finally awarded, I was nearly broke. We’d spent all of our money beefing up Brad’s reel. I had no freelance work or other source of income.

Dozens of young men and women had worked for me as production assistants, and I had trained many of them in the fine art of production coordination. Ironically, I taught them so well, I quickly discovered that I couldn’t compete with them in the freelance marketplace, as they were so well trained.

Now, for better or worse, I was now the executive producer of my own production company working on an international Coca-Cola spot for CAA with a first-time live action director. I was down to my last $1,000 when, one afternoon, I took then ten-minute hike down my steep, third of a mile driveway, to my mailbox on rural Skyline Boulevard and there was the first installment payment from the Coca-Cola corporation in Atlanta – a check for a $250,000.

We were off to the races. My father was pleased when I paid back the $15,000 he had loaned me – he didn’t even charge me interest.

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Our “Killing a Thirst” spot involved a young man who is out jogging in the middle of the Mojave desert, who is accosted by a small annoying animated character (a thirst) until the jogger spots a vending machine in front of a dilapidated filling station and buys a bottle of Coca-Cola. Upon his first sip, the animated character explodes, thus “killing the thirst.” It the look and feel of a retro TV spot from the fifties or sixties.

I saw this as my long-awaited opportunity to hire the cinematographer Allen Daviau to shoot our spot. Brad was so inexperienced; I knew he was going to need a lot of help. And Allen had a wonderful bedside manner with greenhorn directors like Brad.

Dean Cundey ASC

We had plenty money in the budget to afford Allen’s $3,500 day-rate. His agent, Judy Marks, told me he was actually available for our shoot dates – a lucky happenstance, so I had her pencil us in.

But, for some reason Fink and Hochron didn’t want us to use Allen Daviau. Allen had a reputation for taking a long time lighting a scene. I privately wondered if CAA didn’t want us to use Allen because they did not represent him and would thus derive no percentage of his fee.

Here, we were confronted with one of the constraints of working with a “talent agency” rather than “advertising” agency.

CAA wanted us to use Dean Cundey. Such a logical and sensible choice made it hard to object to their suggestion. Cundey was unflappable, and cool, and a seasoned master of visual effects cinematography. Dean was then finishing shooting The Flintstones movie. Cundey shot all three Back to the Future movies and the incomparable Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – a masterpiece of combined live action and traditional cel animation.

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While we worked on the commercial, Brad had so many irons in the fire, it always felt like some other client was getting his best work. I fully understood – he had a wife and kids to support. After all, we were only paying him $40,000 for his time.

Adam Miller (left) Brad Bird and Guy Needham (right) 1992

The Coke job required Lisa and my full attention, but Brad’s concentration and availability was always fragmented. When I timed out the action in his storyboard for our thirty-second commercial, it came out to closer to forty-seconds. Since we were paying retail for every frame of animation and there were twenty-four frames per second – this meant that we’d be contracting for several hundreds more illustrations than we actually needed.

But each time I asked him to time out the commercial, he would offer an excuse as to why he was too busy to do so. This was so penny-wise and pound-foolish, I was vexed. Like a belligerent child being asked to clean up his room, Brad seemed inclined to rebel against authority, even when his own best interests were at hand. This sort of hubris is bad news in a green-horn, first-time live action director.

Months later, when he finally did time out the storyboard, he found out that I was correct – it was more than seven seconds too long, and some of the action was omitted.

It was a beginner’s mistake on Brad’s part – one that he never forgave me for noticing.

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Playwright and actor Wallace Shawn

For the voice of the animated creature, Brad wanted the quirky character actor from My Dinner with Andre, the great playwright, Wallace Shawn. He portrayed the villain, Vizzini in The Princess Bride and uttered the immortal one-liner, “Inconceivable!!”

Word on the street was that Shawn didn’t own a television set. But he was interested in voicing animated characters and he would have been perfect for this spot. But Shawn wasn’t a CAA client. Rather, he was represented by the prestigious William Morris agency. As was customary and entirely predictable, Shawn’s agent requested a copy of the script, which we faxed over to him, for Mr. Shawn to review.

I hadn’t had a vacation in a year – I had been too broke to go anywhere, as we had been working so hard on getting Brad’s live-action career off the ground. So that weekend, I travelled with my girlfriend and her family to the Cayman Islands for a few days of rest and relaxation. I brought my cel phone in the unlikely event the client needed to reach me.

I would live to regret this decision.

I was enjoying a cold piña colada at the hotel bar one afternoon, when my cel phone rang and it was my client at CAA. He was in an enraged tirade because I had, had the audacity to share the script with a rival talent agency, William Morris.

The faxing of scripts to movie stars is standard procedure at any advertising agency or commercial production company. But not at CAA – Mike Ovitz’s alternate agency – his “Evil Empire.”

Once again, I was confronted by the limitations of working with a talent agency masquerading as an ad agency. Understandably, actors and their representatives will not agree to appear in an advertisement without first reading and approving the script. My client proceeded to verbally chastise me for twenty minutes, as if I had leaked the nuclear codes to the Russians. He was apoplectic and vitriolic.

This really harshed my buzz. I spent the rest of the vacation regretting I had answered the phone. I could hardly digest my conch chowder at dinner that evening.

Michael Jeter

Suffice to say, these unprecedented constraints significantly impaired the pre-production process. And we didn’t get Wallace Shawn.

However, we were fortunate to book the late Michael Jeter. Jeter was from Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, and had appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows. He came into the casting agency for his audition, took a quick look at the sketch of the animated creature in the commercial, and went right into the booth, making almost no small talk.

With very little direction, almost as if he were in a hurry to get out of there for another appointment, he put on the headphones and proceeded to give us such an inspired characterization, right on the spot. We never brought him back into the studio to record his voice over, but simply used his audition first take performance in the final commercial.

Jeter’s menacing, but comical voice-over gave the animated character attitude and personality.

Sometimes first takes are simply magical.

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Alan Roderick-Jones

Lisa managed the one-day shoot in the Mojave Desert, hiring all the best crew people in the business, and it all went off according to plan. Even the catered lunch was memorable.

For the first time in my short career, I wasn’t working on the set. Lisa had hired excellent assistant directors and production managers, and they really didn’t need me during the shoot. As the executive producer I spent most of the day hanging out with Boyd Shermis, our postproduction supervisor. Both of us were there in case of an emergency, but things went so smoothly, all we did was watch the proceedings from a distance.

Brad was a fish out of water, in the middle of the desert, in the bright sunshine, surrounded by a crew of forty technicians, with Dean Cundey as his mentor. Cundey was cool as a cucumber ­– he could have phoned this job in.

Lisa had hired production designer Alan Roderick-Jones to design the dilapidated gas station set. It cost $60,000 to build and dress. Jones had been in the business so long, he’d worked as a draughtsman on Charles Chaplin’s last film, A Countess from Hong Kong (1967). His set was so beautiful, in every little aged and weather-worn detail, we were loath to tear it down, as required by our filming permit, and scrambled to come up with another idea for a second spot to shoot there the following day. But in the end, the set was sold to a salvage company who tore it down and hauled it away, early the next morning.

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Shane Zelvin, one of the animators on the Coke spot.

For the hundreds of drawings needed for the animation, we hired the best individuals in the industry – animators from the old-school cel animation school – most of whom were then employed by the other Evil Empire – the Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank.

Hiring animators is like casting actors. So much of the animated character’s attitude derives from the animator’s personality. If you want a quirky animated creature, hire a quirky animator.

For several months, once a week, I would fly into the Burbank Airport and jump in a rental car and drive into town. I would park at least five blocks from the Disney Studio and there, clandestinely meet staff animators on their lunch breaks.

As in a drug deal, they would nonchalantly walk from the studio towards my vehicle and pass by the window of my rental car, surreptitiously handing off their animation illustrations-in-progress in an unmarked manila envelope. I paid them in cash, under the table, as it were. If the studio had caught wind of what was going on, the animators would have been fired and blacklisted.

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Adam Miller (left) Antonia Peters and Brad Bird (right) 1992

One of the best TV commercial editors in San Francisco was Bob Frisk. Our job didn’t offer him much in the way of creative challenges, but he and his producer were intrigued at the possibility of adding an international Coca-Cola spot to his editor’s reel.

So, Bob and his assistant, Jonathan Hinman, flew down to L.A. and we put them up at a very nice hotel overlooking the beach in Santa Monica. I booked an edit suite at Pacific Ocean Post (POP) – then the most expensive editorial facility in town – which was walking distance from their hotel.

First, we assembled a version of the thirty-second spot, exactly as depicted in Brad’s storyboard. Then, for a few days, Bob cut several different versions of the spot, which were to be shown to Len Fink and Shelly Hochron later that week, so they could decide which would be the keeper.

At the last minute, Len Fink phoned to say that he was overscheduled that day, and that he couldn’t come to POP. As per his request, we set up a video link to his office so he could review Bob’s edits later that day. All our work was stored on one enormous hard drive. Ten minutes before the scheduled video call with Fink and Hochron, the hard drive inexplicably failed, and all the work stored on it vanished. All we had left was the version assembled exactly as depicted in Brad’s storyboard.

Now it was time for the video call. We held our breath. We showed Len and Shelly the only version we had left – the original cut as Brad had illustrated it in his storyboard. We couldn’t see them, but we could hear their voices.

“That’s great,” said Len Fink. “The edit is approved.” We all breathed a sigh of relief. We’d miraculously managed to avoid the embarrassing experience of having to tell the client that everything on the hard drive and vanished. Fink and Hochron were very busy that day and minutes later, they hung up.

Sometimes you get lucky.

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A frame from Brad’s “Killing a Thirst” commercial, 1993

After the shoot, during the postproduction, Brad broached the subject of his director’s fee. Apparently, his ambitious wife, had learned from her sister (my partner Lisa) how smoothly the project was going and had speculated about how large the profits might be. Brad’s wife pressured him to hit me up for a bigger piece of the pie.

Awkwardly, Brad called me and told me that the $40,000 director’s fee wasn’t going to be enough.

I was incredulous. I did my very best to be diplomatic, but I was without compassion. $40,000 happened to be the Directors Guild of America’s minimum payment for directing a feature film. And we were paying Brad that much money to direct a one thirty-second commercial.

I reminded Brad of our conversation about his director’s fee, several months before. I made it clear that he had cut his deal and now he was going to have to live with it: $40,000 was all he was going to receive.

Thereafter, Brad was cool and distant in our few remaining interactions.

It was over. We were not going to the prom.

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We’d won the battle, but we’d lost the war.

I don’t think the spot never aired in the United States. I have never met anyone who ever saw the commercial on television. (There’s a German language version of the commercial on YouTube.)

Ironically, I was unable to parlay it into another job – not with Brad, not with Lisa, and not with Coke, CAA, or any other advertising agency.

It turned out to be a complete dead end for me. It was surreal.

Brad Bird

Once Brad cashed my check for $40,000, I don’t believe he ever called me again. It was bittersweet. After the wonderful comradery and friendships that I’d developed with directors, ad agency folks, and crew members, in my years as a freelancer – working with Brad was a real let down. Once that job was done, it was like, “Look at the big picture: I’m in it and you’re not.”

Although Lisa did a great job on the production, she found the risky experience of being a principal in a production company to be too anxiety-producing for her tastes and returned to working as freelancer. She vowed that all of her future endeavors would be funded by O.P.M. (other people’s money). And she’s done very well for herself.

CAA’s foray into TV commercials didn’t last very long. In the end, they proved that there were no shortcuts to developing effective broadcast advertising campaigns and that such endeavors should be left to experienced industry professional.

Brad Bird returned to the world of animated film – his planet of origin, where he felt most at home. A decade later, he distinguished himself as the director of The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007) for Pixar, both of which received the Academy Award for best animated feature. In this, he was triumphant.

Apparently, Lisa and my investment in Brad Bird’s career paid off – ironically just not for us.

That’s show business.

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Categories: I Am the Light, He is the Shadow.