Chef Boyardee All-Star Band: Steve Gadd, Paul Shaffer and Will Lee

Front Row Seat

I had the best seat in the house – right behind a gleaming 48-channel Neve mixing console.

Cartoon commercial for Saturday morning.

I was sitting in the control room of the Warehouse recording studio on West 46th Street. Don’t look for it today. Like many of New York’s recording havens, it’s long gone, a victim to rising rents, laptop recording and a seismic shift in advertising tastes.

This morning, however, the Warehouse was in its full glory – a spectacular state-of-the-art recording facility.

No better place to record a silly soundtrack for a Chef Boyardee kids’ commercial.

The Session

This studio did a lot of advertising business. It was run by Lucas/McFaul, two renowned composers and producers. (In fact, David Lucas produced Blue Oyster Cult’s hit “Don’t Fear the Reaper” – and played the infamous cowbell on the song.)

Today’s session was trickier than most. We needed to record music that matched cartoon animation. So instead of playing to a steady musical tempo, the timing would be dictated by the visual action.

Go wild with Chef Boyardee Zooroni. Animals spring to life from the can.

Audio Overload

Like most kids’ commercials, the audio track was bombastic, loaded with vocalists, a backing band, kids’ dialogue and sound effects. (Listen for yourself. Watch the commercial below.)

Now comes the moment of truth. How would the music composer arrange all these audio elements to perfectly match the cartoon animation?

What’s the Score?

In the control room, I asked to see the musical score we’d be recording.

Swing into action with Chef Boyardee.

Yipes, just as I feared. It was a musical obstacle course. There were “split bars,” where musical measures change abruptly, not to mention key modulations and tempo shifts.

I braced myself for a long morning of trying to get a perfect take – or having to settle for one that was close enough. Back then, there was no digital editing, just reel-to-reel tape.

Beat of a Different Drummer

At every recording session, the drummer is critical. Here’s why. The drummer lays down the rhythmic foundation. All the other musicians follow the drummer’s timing.

Today’s session would require a well-versed, highly skilled drummer who could fearlessly navigate this musical maze.

I turned to Nick DiMinno, the studio producer, and asked who was booked on drums.

“Oh, we got lucky,” he replied. “Steve Gadd was available.”

OMG Gadd

Steve Gadd’s musical credits are legendary. (Listen to his drum work on Steely Dan’s “Aja.”) He’s also played with Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, James Taylor and so on.

In other words, Gadd is the consummate studio drummer. So what’s he doing at a West side studio this morning playing on a kids’ commercial?

Hey, Must Be the Money!

Top Musicians Like to Jingle

For union musicians, playing on TV commercials is extremely lucrative. You get paid your session fee, then get paid residuals every 13 weeks that the commercial airs. If it’s a national spot that runs for a year, you end up with a hefty paycheck for about 90 minutes of work.

It’s hip to be a Hippo.

During the jingle music heyday of advertising, in-demand studio musicians would play two to three different recording sessions a day. You’d see the same first-call players again and again at different studios across town.

On this particular session, I remember two other familiar faces on the other side of the glass in the tracking room: Will Lee on bass and Paul Shaffer on keyboards, both from The Late Show band with David Letterman.

Hearing Super Power

The first time you hear playback in a recording studio, it’s a mind-blowing experience. Imagine the world’s greatest stereo on steroids. You’re overwhelmed by the sparkling clarity and powerful depth.

And at today’s session, I was listening to a room full of world-class musicians playing on a TV commercial I wrote. Talk about your golden ticket to a private concert.

The Run Down

Finally, the band was ready for a run-through. The composer gave last minute instructions. And the cartoon animation was cued up on a large video monitor in the studio.

Steve Gadd concentrated on the TV countdown. He clicked his drum sticks together, setting a tempo.

Get on board for fun with Chef Boyardee.

With a decisive thump of the bass drum, the band launched into the music.

Thirty seconds later, it was over. In the control room and recording room, everyone looked at each other, astonished. It sounded surprisingly tight, no major mistakes.

The recording engineer seized the momentum. He quickly hit the talkback mic on the mixing board.

“Okay everybody, sounded good. Let’s record one.”

For the Record

The tall 24-track recording deck behind us whirled to life, its 2” tape reels spinning smoothly.

Again, Steve Gadd watched the start of the video monitor and clacked his drum sticks to set the beat.

Spark your imagination and let it ride.

I stared at the TV screen and listened intently. Again, the band roared through the music, the drums nailing the cartoon action with pinpoint precision.

In the control room, we sat motionless as the last downbeat faded away.

Was it possible? Did I just hear what I think I heard?

Proof Is in the Playback

Nick DiMinno turned to me and asked, “Check the playback?” I nodded.

The audio tape recorder was rewound and synched to the video deck. We watched the playback.

It was perfect. I mean perfect. Steve Gadd had read that musical chart as easily as a Sunday newspaper. Absolutely flawless.

Learn your ABC’s and 1, 2, 3’s!

Nick and I looked at each other, stunned.

“Play it back one more time” I requested, just to be sure. Again, I could find nothing wrong.

“Do another take?” asked Nick.

“No need,” I answered. “This is the one.” The first take was a perfect take.

One and Done

Nick hit the talkback button on the mix board to speak to the musicians.

“Okay, thanks everybody. You’re done. Turn in your union session forms before you go.”

King of the Drum Throne

Steve Gadd leaped off the drum set and headed to the control room.

Unlike the other session musicians, Gadd carried a personalized tear-off pad that had his union payment information pre-printed – all he added was the session date and location. (Which shows you how much he’s in demand.)

An adventure in every spoonful.

In the control room, Gadd handed Nick DiMinno his form. The studio producer had one more request for the renowned rhythm king.

“Steve, before you go, we have a new electronic drum machine called LinnDrums. Would you mind recording a few extra tom-tom fills on it?”

Gadd looked curiously at the black finger touch-pads framed in a wooden case that was set up on the mix console.

“Sure, no problem,” he said.

The engineer cued up the tape deck and I sat next to Gadd as he joyfully overdubbed tom-tom accents with his forefingers, like a small boy pretending to be a drummer. Absolutely, utterly, surreal.

Three passes later, he was done and out the door.

The Mix Doesn’t Do Justice

Unfortunately, the commercial below was transferred from video tape that had deteriorated over many years. The aging affected the picture as well as the audio track.

The Big Finish – Thank Goodness!

Also, when this music was recorded, audio for TV commercials was never mixed at full fidelity. During that time, most TV sets had a tiny 6″ speaker with a limited range for sound. Vocals and dialogue were considered the priority, so they were pushed louder than the band.

Long story, short, you’re not going to get the full, thunderous impact I felt that day. But the thrill of hearing a perfect take – on the very first take – is a feeling I will never forget.

Copywriter: Joseph Ehlinger. Art Director: Mary Ellen Cohen. ACD: Nick Pronovitch. Creative Director: Gerry Miller. Agency: Young & Rubicam. Client: Chef Boyardee (American Home Foods). Music Production Company: Lucas/McFaul (David Lucas, Tom McFaul). Studio Producer: Nick DiMinno. Recording Studio: Warehouse

This commercial was archived with the help of the Paley Center for Media. Please support their efforts to preserve and celebrate our extraordinary video history.

Hiring Michael Bay to Shoot My Short Film

It was a very short film. Thirty seconds to be exact. And it didn’t star Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith or Megan Fox.

Star Power – Crunch ‘n Munch toffee popcorn and peanuts.

No, the hero of this film was a waxed cardboard box filled with toffee-glazed popcorn and a smattering of peanuts. The star’s name? “Crunch ‘n Munch.”

So how did I end up with a blockbuster film director shooting my snack food commercial? Easy. He needed a job.

‘Discovering’ Michael Bay

It wasn’t me. Credit goes to a young woman producer at Young & Rubicam. I was sitting with my Art Director, Bruce Cumsky, when she walked in with a stack of Director’s reels on ¾” video cassettes.

She said there were a couple of good directors within our budget (not extravagant). However, there was one new guy who caught her eye. His film had a great look. He knew how to compose a frame. And how to move a camera. In other words, a young, hungry, up-and-coming shooter.

His skills made sense for the project. It was a series of lifestyle vignettes edited to a jingle music track. (MTV was all the rage.)

The label on the video cassette read Propaganda Films, Michael Bay, Director’s Reel. The woman producer was Sean Lacey.

Getting Client Buy-In

Bay’s early Director Reel had about five examples on it. I remember two of them. One was a Donny Osmond music video. (Solo artist, not with his bros.) And the other was for a brand of bottled water, a new beverage category at the time.

Crunch ‘n Munch was owned by American Home Foods and our client contact was Carl Becker. Carl relied on a handful of “comfort zone” directors for his company’s commercials. He didn’t want to hear about artistic differences.

Over the years, Carl and I had worked on a few TV campaigns. (See Search for the Last Italian Pizza Slinger in NYC.) They had one thing in common: They all made money. Consequently, I’d built up a small reservoir of trust.

“Why risk going with a new kid director?” Becker asked. I explained that we’re promoting a teen snack. It needed a cool, music video look. Becker cocked an eyebrow. He wasn’t buying.

Motorcycle guy snacks at deserted roadside.

“Carl, remember Michael Bay’s spot for the bottled water?” I reminded him. “Water is usually free, but his commercial looks so good, people pay a dollar for it. That’s who you want shooting for you.”

Becker eased his shoulders and laughed. Michael Bay was hired.

I Love LA

One of the perks of being a TV copywriter was flying to sunny locales, staying in swanky hotels and chowing down at posh eateries – while your ad agency picks up the tab. Hooray business trips!

The Propaganda Empire

Even by LA standards, Propaganda Films was the cool-kids’ place to shoot. When we first arrived, I spotted actor Alex Winter from the Bill and Ted movie hanging out in the lobby. Excellent!

Propaganda represented a stable of hot directors. TV commercials were a way to keep them busy between film projects. Michael Bay was a new add to their roster. When Propaganda submitted their bid to shoot this spot, they gave us a low-ball price. They wanted to develop Bay’s director reel to solicit bigger – and more profitable – jobs.

Glimpse into the Future

There’s a reason Propaganda struck me as a high-volume film production factory. Because it was. Flanked by my co-workers, a Melrose Avenue-styled goth receptionist escorted us to the ad agency work space. Make yourselves comfortable, she said, spinning to leave.

It was the size of a high school gym. Décor was strictly minimal, strictly functional. There were long parachute-packing tables and metal folding chairs. That was it. Bare bones bleak done in 1984 Orwellian.

A cold realization shivered through me. This was all you needed. Give an ad agency producer a cell phone and a laptop and they were in business. A virtual office. They were doomed to become itinerant workers, wandering the Hollywood Hills, begging for storyboards and an unlimited 4G plan. It was the beginning of the end for brick-and-mortar workspaces.

Get Down to Business

The pre-production drill is pretty routine. You watch endless hopeful faces on casting videos, then narrow it down to a final few for an in-person call-back session.

I shot a commercial with Michael Bay and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

For this spot, we had eight exterior setups. You match the storyboard descriptions to photos of real locations, then drive for hours in a van to see them in person. During this scenic tour, you pray for a pee break after swigging a Grande coffee.

We budgeted two days to shoot all the exteriors. It was an ambitious schedule, so we chose locations close to each other to minimize the crew travel time.

Meeting Mr. Bay

Oh wait, I got a ball cap, too.

I doubt Michael Bay remembers much about this shoot. Frankly, it was pretty uneventful. Bay looked young and intense. He wasn’t much for small talk. Or maybe he didn’t have a lot to say to ad agency strangers. (Can’t blame him for that.) It was just another job. In a few days, we’d all part ways. Done and done.

And ‘Action’

Come the first shoot day, I was surprised at how much production equipment was on hand. Per usual, we had plenty of HMI lights, c-stands and sandbags. Also, we had a massive camera crane.

Looking Up – Crane shot to find fire escape couple.

The first shot was a 2nd story fire escape with a young couple eating Crunch ‘n Munch. Bay choreographed a slow, upwards swoop of the camera to find the couple. Granted, the camera move looked cinematic, but the allotted screen time for the scene was only about 2.5 seconds. We’d never be able to use the full length of the shot.

Not to worry, Michael said. He was shooting some extra coverage for his own edit, which was fairly common with directors. I shrugged okay and kept the client away from the camera.

Beachin’ – Crunch ‘n Munch sparks romance.

A few hours later, we headed to the beach, where the crew set up long dolly tracks. Again, the camera glided gracefully to settle on a different young couple frolicking in front of a lifeguard boat, holding a Crunch ‘n Munch box. With each take, I counted the seconds it took for the dolly move to finish. Every one of them ran long. Still, the talents’ action looked good, so I figured we’d cut into the shot towards the end.

Devil his due, Michael marched through the day’s shot list, one setup to the next. The only disagreement came late on the 2nd day in Venice Beach. We were scheduled to do a vignette with twin girls. And the client decided to nix the scene.

Fresh popcorn tumbles down the rollers.

I went to tell Michael, but he brushed past saying he couldn’t talk right now. He was losing the light and needed to get the shot off. Okay, I thought. It was his call, but we weren’t going to use it. (And we didn’t.) Still, Michael was in his zone, focused and determined. I, on the other hand, was ready to knock off for the day.

Shooting Commercials vs. Shooting Music Videos

There’s an unspoken reality in copywriting: You can write 50 scripts for each TV spot that eventually gets produced. That’s a lot of storyboards. And a lot of time spent staring at a stopwatch.

You only get :30 seconds. So you become acutely aware of the passing of time. Every precious tick of the clock. Often, the client insists you stuff many thoughts into a single commercial, so you have to organize your script carefully to accommodate everything.

Writing commercials is all about compressing time. Collapsing entire stories into :30 seconds. (Or even :15.) You crush it.

Music videos are the opposite. They’re all about stretching time. Trying to figure out how to extend your footage to cover off a three minute song – and keep it visually interesting.

That’s no easy task. Music video budgets are often leaner than an undernourished groupie. And there’s only so many times you can cut back to the drummer twirling his sticks with a heavy-lidded, stoner grin. Riveting.

For a while, it seemed every film school grad padded their reel with music videos of unknown baby bands. In turn, so did many old-school directors who didn’t want to get left in the dust.

Many of these early, low-budget music videos were a flailing sprawl. Directors shot everything that moved. They didn’t force themselves to make hard, disciplined choices upfront. So in post, bleary-eyed editors struggled to cobble together something watchable – with varying results.

Play the Home Game Version

“Are we showing the product too many times?” said no client ever.

The above digression is offered as a cautionary tale. For you budding YouTube vloggers watching commercials at home and thinking “Hm, I can do better than that,” here’s good news: Maybe you can. Give it a shot. The tools have never been more available.

However, a word of advice. Working within the tight time constraints and client confines of a national TV spot requires a peculiar set of skills – technical as well as people. So be prepared for a learning curve.

The Lost Treasure

Should have gone with smaller dog. The boy was terrified.

Sadly, a clean print of the Crunch ‘n Munch full :30 version has been lost to the ravages of time and archaic analogue video formats. Fortunately, the :15 edit has survived and can been seen below.

Celebrity Swap

Many years later, while working at a small promotional agency in Darien, Connecticut, I was swapping celebrity stories with the Interactive Director. He told me that during his late teens, he was a swim instructor and had taught Ron Howard’s kids how to swim.

I told him I had once shot film with Michael Bay. He paused and noted, “So I guess you guys are on parallel career paths.”

“Yes,” I nodded, “I guess we are.”

Copywriter: Joseph Ehlinger. Art Director: Bruce Cumsky. Producer: Sean Lacey. ACD: Nick Pronovich. Creative Director: Cary Lemkowitz. Account Executive: Tim Curry. Ad Agency: Young & Rubicam. Director: Michael Bay. Production Company: Propaganda Films. Product: Crunch ‘n Munch (American Home Foods). Client: Carl Becker.

This commercial was archived with the help of the Paley Center for Media. Please support their efforts to preserve and celebrate our extraordinary media history.


Super Bowl TV: $3 Million Gone in 30 Seconds

Think fast. The :30 commercial below cost a cool $1.25 million to shoot, $2 million to air and it ran only once.

Make Every Second Count

Kforce chose the Super Bowl to launch their new jobsite, designed to go head-to-head against Monster and HotJobs, the category leaders. No expense was spared, including hiring the Set Designer from the original “Blade Runner” film.

Seedy storefronts shot in downtown Los Angeles in a vacated freight loading alley.

The $3 Million Dollar Question: Did the commercial do it’s job?

On game day, nearly 2.5 million hits were registered before the servers crashed. In turn, was backlogged with applicants for the next six months. Victory.

The commercial was voted a “Top 10” spot by USA Today and Yahoo. I was the ACD/Copywriter. Senior Art Director: Lori Sibal. Senior Producer: Aaron Royer. ECD: Richard Mahan. Director: Peter Smiley. Agency: Grey.

This commercial was archived with the help of the Paley Center for Media. Please support their efforts to preserve and celebrate our extraordinary media history.