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