A Star Is Born?

October 2, 1998

By Michael Jessen

Lights, camera, action -- well, two out of three is not bad.

Making a television commercial is not quite the same as participating in a Hollywood North movie production. There are a few things missing.

Like the lights. And the crew. And other cast members. And the catering truck. And the dressing room. And the makeup person. And the paycheque.

But, hey, we all have to start somewhere in the climb up the ladder of the stars to Leonardo DiCaprio status.

After watching TV commercials for Emory's Mens Wear, AM Ford, Kalawsky Pontiac Buick GMC, and Nelson Home Furniture, and a host of other local businesses, I decided it was time to try and sell composters via the tube.

I wrote a rough draft of a 30-second script and called Dan Caverly, BCTV's representative for the West Kootenays.

Dan and I met (we didn't do lunch) in my office and we talked over the idea. A day or two later, Dan came back with an improved script and we set up a day to shoot.

The location: my backyard beside my composter. I memorize my lines, saying them over and over to myself and timing the result -- 25 seconds exactly if I don't fumble some words.

Dan arrives early and sets up the camera. I rush in with some last minute script changes. As director, gaffer, best boy and cinematographer, Dan is easy going for a guy doing all those jobs. Sure, let's try your changes, he says.

I need to pin a microphone on my T-shirt. Initially, it casts a big shadow on my shirt. Dan says we need a boom microphone. We'd also need someone to hold it, I say.

The traffic on the highway adjacent to my house is loud. We wait, lamenting the lack of guards to stop traffic so one of us can yell "Quiet on the set!"

And then, suddenly its just like making a movie. I don't do the whole commercial in one take. We do it one scene at a time. The 25 seconds of air time is divided into five segments.

We do the first couple of lines. Dan says my voice was kind of flat, could I put more emotion into it. Like an actor I search inwardly for the emotional core of my role. I'm trying to convince the audience to buy an Earth Machine composter. I use one myself. They really work. And I've got about 170 composters I desperately want to sell.

The second take is better, but Dan calls for a third. It continues that way. Take one. Wait for the traffic noise to subside. Take two. Noise. Take three.

Each of the five segments is filmed three or four times. The production office in Kelowna selects the best takes and strings them together in a seamless finished masterpiece which looks and sounds terrific. (That's NOT my ego talking there although my daughter Caitlin pronounces it just "pretty good.")

Now comes the really tough part -- waiting for audience reaction. The commercial airs for the first couple of times. The next day a woman from Fruitvale calls and wants to know how to get a composter. She likes the ad, she really likes it! One down and 169 to go.

The commercial will air a couple of times a day for the next four weeks. It might be on during the News Hour, it might be on during Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy, it might air during the News Hour Final. It might also be on in the middle of the night. A computer does the booking, wouldn't you know it.

If you haven't yet considered composting in your backyard, I hope you get a chance to see the commercial. The Earth Machine can easily accommodate 1,000 pounds of food waste from your kitchen and grass clippings and leaves from your yard.

By keeping this material out of our landfills and reducing your garbage by 25 or 30%, you will be a star in your own right.

TRASH TIP: The average North American will spend one entire year of her or his life watching television commercials.


All columns archived here are copyright © 1999 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at toenail@netidea.com to arrange appropriate payment.