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Making Commercials: The Story of Maria’s Awesomeness

A commercial for a museum tells the story of a young girl who studies dinosaurs, but never grows up.

By Michael Fickes

You don’t see many television commercials for museums aiming to connect you to the institution’s mission to discover, interpret and disseminate knowledge about human cultures, the natural world and the universe.

Is that even possible? Sure.

Take a look at “Maria & The Dinosaur,” a commercial promoting the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. “This is a spot that tells you why to visit the museum, not what is in the museum,” says Clint White, president of New York City-based WiT Media, an agency that specializes in non-profit work.

Maria earns first place in her school’s science fair after visiting New York City’s American Museum of Natural History.
Maria earns first place in her school’s science fair after visiting New York City’s American Museum of Natural History.

The spot has only a couple of visual effects. What makes it interesting is the creative way it tells its story. WiT produced “Maria & the Dinosaur” with Wander, a Los Angeles-based creative collective and commercial production company. “Clint was interested in work we have done using narration to tell a story being shown visually in quick cuts,” said Wander’s President, Aaron Weber.

That’s the technique used in “Maria & The Dinosaur.”

Why did the family visit the museum? To make Maria awesome. The awesome-making story begins when a dinosaur exhibition at the museum inspires her to win her school’s science fair. She then graduates summa cum laude in biology from an Ivy League university, earns a master’s in paleontology and a Ph.D. in comparative paleobiology, which enables her to land a job studying dinosaurs. At the end of the commercial, Maria receives the “American Awesome Association’s Awesome Prize for Awesomeness.”

In a fun visual twist, Maria remains the same seven-year-old kid that burst into the museum in the first scene.

Shot and edited as a :60 commercial and also edited down to a :30 piece, Maria’s story of winning a science fair with a prize for Awesomeness is long. There are lots of set-ups and scenes and only a couple of stock shots, and a couple of effects.

The commercial was shot in the main building of the museum’s 27-building complex, but only one scene shows the public area with the dinosaur exhibit. Another scene – the last – shows the family leaving the museum and walking down the front steps. The rest of the scenes use various administrative and conference rooms in the main museum building.

In the opening scene, Director KRANKY (the working name of Laurence Paul Shanet), asks Cinematographer Eric Giovon to pan down from the main building’s tall ceiling to the main entrance, revealing Maria and her parents as they approach the dinosaur exhibit in the rotunda. “We needed 15 to 20 takes to get the speed of the pan right,” said Weber.

After visiting New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, Maria wins her school’s science fair, graduates from Princeton, earns a master’s and doctorate, and lands her dream job studying dinosaurs.
After visiting New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, Maria wins her school’s science fair, graduates from Princeton, earns a master’s and doctorate, and lands her dream job studying dinosaurs.

The bright-eyed and well-cast Maria, who owns the commercial, races up to the Allosaurus display in the center of the floor. The next scene shows four screens arranged two-over-two showing Maria’s preparations for the science fair. The top two show a book about dinosaurs with its pages turning and a wooden box filling up with sand. The bottom two show the box filling up with dinosaurs, boulders, plants and trees. Each shot is a portrait; together the four shots show progress.

“The spot is 100-percent story driven,” Weber said, “and there is a lot of story-content to fit in. KRANKY thought we could get more into the spot with the four-screen idea. And it worked.”

Additional four-screen portrait scenes chronicle her progress through college and grad school. At each graduation ceremony, she clambers up onto a stool to receive her diploma, which grows physically larger while she does not.

Actually, all of the scenes are portrait shots, which the narrator describes. It is a different way to tell the story of a commercial. The characters speak only a few muted words. The narrator tells the story as the single and four-screen portraits appear.

The fun lies in Maria’s ridiculously exuberant story, which is the exact same story we all want for our kids. After seeing the spot, most of us will probably make a mental note to take our kids to a good museum.


December 4, 2013