Friday, April 18, 2003

The "Great Men" theory explaining British advertising, or, The story of Ridley Scott.

This post is a follow up to the piece I wrote a couple of days ago, attempting to explain British television commericals. That post focused on cultural and regulatory issues. This one is going to look at some of the people involved, and the influence of these people. If you haven't already, you may want to read that post first, and indeed this post from Brian that inspired it.

Brian spoke about the figures who made British advertising, of David Puttnam (who was more a producer - someone who facilitated the making of advertisements - than someone who really got his hands dirty and actually made them). He then spoke of the actual creative people, one named Parker, and "most of the others are named Scott". And if you look at these people (and another Brian didn't mention named Lyne there is a distinct career path. Art school, usually, then maybe a little while at the BBC, then time in the British advertising business, and then making movies in Hollywood, and also perhaps making commercials in America. But when you look more carefully than that, you find that one man led the way, pioneering a career path that at the time was unconventional, and the others followed his lead. And that man is the elder and more famous of the Scott brothers. Ridley Scott is quite a famous director. He is the man who brought us Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. But what is interesting is that if you look more carefully you discover that he is rather more influential than that. (I am aided in my ability to talk about Ridley Scott by the fact that I have a copy of a biography of the man handy, from which much of the information in the next few paragraphs is taken).

Before going on, it is worth having a brief discussion of movie and television credits. A producer is in change of a production, raises the money, and hires the other principals. The director tells the actors what to do, supervises each take, and is in charge of the actual filming. The director of photography (or cinematographer) actually positions the camera and composes the shots, makes sure the lighting is right, etc. Tha art director (or production designer) actually designs the sets and props and their arrangement, and is probably more responsible for the visual look of the film than anyone else. He is assisted by a set decorator, who actually builds the props.

Ridley Scott studied graphic design at the Royal College of Art in London in the lste 1950s. At the same time, he saw a great many films, and even made a short film with a 16mm camera that was lying around at this establishment, which did not actually teach film at the time. He then joined the BBC as an art director and at that time appeared to be ferociously ambitious and driven, designing the sets for a huge range of BBC productions at the time. He was noticed by the advertising industry, and started moonlighting as an art director for commercials made by a commercial director named Keith Hewitt. In Scott's words "..Keith gave me four commercials to art direct, and the money I was paid for each of those was much more than what I was earning from the BBC. I thought 'Jese Christ!. How long has this been going on?'". Scott moved from art directing to directing as well at the BBC, and then directing commericals as well but a year or so later had something of a falling out with the BBC, due to the fact that he found television production too limiting given his obsession with detail and style. He left the BBC, and became a full time director of commercials. He was dazzlingly successful, and his work was enormously highly regarded because of his great art direction and tremendous visual style.

After a short while working for other people, Scott in 1965 founded his own advertising production company, Ridley Scott Associates, which is to this day one of the most successful companies in its business. Scott was successful because of his dazzling abilities as an art director and director, and another, non-cultural explanation for British advertising being what it is today is simply that its leading practitioner in its relatively early days was so ferociously brilliant, and so driven. Scott himself shot something like 3000 commercials in a 15 year period. Scott hired several other up and coming directors (including his brother Tony, who had also been to art school, and who also had great visual style) to work for him. His chief competitors were guys like Adrian Lyne and Alan Parker, who were really kept on their toes by the competition. And during this period, particularly after the introduction of colour in the late 1960s, British advertisements developed their high production values and movie like qualities that they have to this day. Part of the reason is the influence of Ridley Scott, who was simply ferociously talented and extremely driven. And his competitors weren't far behind. At least four of the key figures in British advertising became major directors of motion pictures in Hollywood a few years later.

Going from advertising to features wasn't a common career path in those days, but Ridley Scott (and also Alan Parker) led. Scott made The Duelists in 1977 and Alien in 1979. Once he had opened up the past, it was easier for his contemporaries. Parker made Bugsy Malone in 1976 and Midnight Express in 1978. Adrian Lyne made Flashdance in 1983, Nine 1/2 Weeks in 1986, and Fatal Attraction in 1987. Tony Scott made The Hunger in 1983 and Top Gun in 1986. Hugh Hudson made Chariots of Fire in 1981, and Greystoke in 1984. All were in their 40s by the time they started directing features. This is old by Hollywood standards, but they had had their advertising careers first. Their films, particularly those of Ridley Scott, had great art direction, and a great visual look. Their advertising background came through. Scott's Blade Runner, although a financial failure at first, may be the most influential film of the last 25 years. In terms of the visual look of the film, this is hard to dispute. Blade Runner changed what the future looked like. Almost every vision of the future we have seen since has copied it. It was based on the fiction of Philip K Dick, who has since become a source for many Hollywood films. The term Cyberpunk had not yet been invented, but Blade Runner anticipated the sensibility.

And then, something interesting happened in American advertising. A couple of people have criticised my earlier post for being too hard on American advertising, and that is perhaps true. American advertising is easy to criticise for the same reason American television is easy to criticise. Turn on a random American television channel at a random time, and the programming and advertising are likely to be of low quality. The reason for this is once again that there is so much of it. People who want to criticise American television look at the average quality. People who want to praise it look at the best of it. And the result of the sort of Darwinian struggle that goes on in the American market is that the very best of it is very good indeed. In recent years, the best American television has been easily better than the best British programmng. I do not think the best American advertising has been better than the best British advertising, but it has none the less been good. It tends to be targeted for particular times though. The best advertising is that designed to go out on special occasions when particular target demographics are watching. Watch Friends and there will be advertising aimed at young women. Watch certain sporting events and you will find advertising aimed at various male demographics.

This trend to high quality special occasion advertising reaches its highest point at the Superbowl, when huge amounts of money are spent on advertising time, and extremely clever and high quality commercials are produced specially for the occasion. (That said, Superbowl advertising has been in decline since the dot com crash). Often these commercials are shown only once. The Superbowl has been the most expensive advertising event in America for a long time, but this move towards high quality once only oblique rather than direct advertising only really started about 20 years ago.

In particular, at the beginning of 1984 Apple Computer was about to release a new computer. This was the Macintosh: the first mass market computer with a graphical user interface (if you don't count Apple's previous Lisa, which is fair enough given how few it sold). At that time, the company of fear and loathing in the computer world was IBM, which had come into the PC market four years earlier. This computer was like nothing anybody outside Xerox Parc had ever seen before, and Apple wanted to introduce it with a TV commercial like nothing anyone had ever seen before. They bought a Superbowl spot, and commissioned a commercial. It so happened that people more attuned to the sort of commercial Apple wanted were the people who had been making interesting British commercials for the previous 20 years. The most famous of these was the man who had also made the most visually stunning Hollywood film of the recent past. And so, this man was hired to make the Apple Superbowl commercial. He was, of course, Ridley Scott. The Orwell inspired ad, which cost $1.6 million to make, and which can be seen here, is probably the most famous and influential advertisement in the history of American television. The best of the British advertising directors from then on were in demand to make advertisements in America as well as Britain. And they did.

And that is where we are. I have written mostly about Ridley Scott, because the more I look at it, the more influential a figure he clearly is. In terms of modern film and television culture there can be few people as influential. Which is interesting, because until recently Ridley Scott did not have the reputation he deserved. His film career was seen as mixed, and a lot of his films were more influential than they were financially successful. (There has been a tendency for lesser imitations of his films to be big hits for someone else a couple of years later). He had a reputation for films that had more style than substance - with the possible exception of Thelma and Louise. This wasn't entirely fair. His films had plenty of substance, but their style got the attention because it was truly something to behold. Scott was always good at getting fine performances out of his actors, and he has a history of discovering good actors. (Sigourney Weaver, Brad Pitt, and various other people got their big breaks in his movies). An economist friend of mine last year pointed out that Scott's movies were always good at echoing what society in general was nervous about. (Blade Runner was a very 90s movie about post-industrial dislocation, but it was released in 1982. Black Rain (1989). was about uneasiness with Japan. Read what you like into Thelma and Louise (1991), but it caught a certain cultural zeitgeist. G.I. Jane (1997) is perhaps not a great movie, but the women in the military subject had a certain timeliness. Gladiator (2000), about an all powerful but corrupt empire, did have a certain Clintonian quality. And Black Hawk Down (2001) was the story of the Mogadishu mission, which is an event that rather traumatised America's military thinking and emboldened Americas ememies in a way we didn't really understand until later. But Ridley Scott got it).

Listening to my friend, I had to conclude there was some truth in it. Scott got the zeitgest, which was probably why he was so effective in advertising. However, in film, he never really got credit for it. At least, not until recently, when it all changed. Ridley Scott's three most recent films (Gladiator, Hannibal, and Black Hawk Down) have been the three biggest hits of his career. He has received two additional Academy Award nominations in the last several years (He was also nominated for Thelma and Louise. He still hasn't won, however). The British government recently had him knighted. There have been a number of books published recently re-evaluating his work. His reputation is at its highest ever. (I personally don't think any of the recent films are as good as Blade Runner, but they are good. Black Hawk Down in particular is as jarring a picture of a military operation gone wrong as you will ever see. You can see why people who have seen it may have been nervous about getting into urban warfare subsequently). The extent of his influence appears to finally being acknowledged.

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