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Making Commercials: Union Bank

Getting down to basics for a bank shoot produces a simple, clean iconographic campaign.

By Michael Fickes


Twist director/DP Rich Michell frames a scene in the Union Bank campaign.

How often does a simple, elegant creative idea get muddled during a commercial shoot? It probably happens a lot more than many directors would care to admit.

Working through Twist (www.twistfilm.com), a New York- and Minneapolis-based production company, director/DP Rich Michell likes simple, elegant scripts, and when he finds one, he labors mightily to discover what makes it simple and elegant and to make sure those qualities find their way into the production.

Consider Michell’s approach to a new campaign for Lincoln, Nebraska-based Union Bank. Working with the agency creatives from Swanson Russell, also in Lincoln, Michell, who has won praise for his skills with both tabletop and human subjects, liked the scripts right away. “They were well-written with smart, clean messages.”

They reminded Michell of tabletop. “In the table-top world, I often design with a ‘form follows function’ approach,” says Michell. “The goal in the Union Bank campaign was to educate, and we felt that the scripts would do that if we kept the visual toolbox simple, graphic and direct, sort of like a tabletop shoot.”

Getting The Fundamentals Right
Michell and the agency creatives planned each spot in detail during preproduction. They chose to shoot against a stark white background like the recent Apple and Gap campaigns. “I’ve been shooting on white since the ’90s,” he says. “I have a good feel for when that’s an appropriate look, and it felt just right for this campaign.”

Michell decided to bump up the crispness of the white background by choosing a RED ONE camera for the shoot.


The Union Bank spokesman prepares to demonstrate the domino effect illustrating
how hard it can be to find the right person in a bureaucracy.

The scripts took an inventive approach to illustrating intangible banking services by putting concrete visual symbols, each representing a component of the bank’s services, to work in a series of demonstrations.

For example, in the first spot the bank’s spokesman talks about how difficult it can be to find the right person to ask for help in a bureaucratic organization by demonstrating the domino effect. While explaining how one person talks to another who talks to another who talks to others, he knocks over the first domino in a long line. The camera watches as a chain reaction fells hundreds of dominos arrayed across the surface of a table.

The solution to that problem, of course, is a bank organized to put customers in touch with the right person immediately. “At Union Bank,” the spokesman says, “knowledgeable employees are empowered to help you right away.”

As a stinger, he knocks over a single blue domino and says, smiling, “That was easy.”

Unlike tabletop spots, the Union Bank spots have a consistent on-camera spokesman. Michell cast a strong, engaging character that looks like he could be a casual, friendly banker.

In the second commercial, the spokesman fits together a neat stack of red bricks that contrasts vividly with the white background. The bricks demonstrate the benefit of financial strength and security. The spokesman sums up: “Our customers know that their bank is strong and not going anywhere.”


Automated phones with endless menu options can’t replace a person on the end of the line.

Next comes darts with blue feathers. The spokesman throws darts at a dartboard resembling a map. The darts find the locations of Union Bank branches in a city, illustrating that wherever you are, you will find a Union Bank branch nearby. “Bulls-eye,” he says.

White phones on a white table against the white background in the fourth spot illustrate automated phone systems that transfer callers from one irritating set of menu options to another, replacing actual human help. At Union Bank, says the spokesperson, “There’s a live person answering the phone.” As a single phone on another table rings, he says, “I’d better get that.”

Finally, comes a “tailoring” demo. We see the spokesman wearing a sports jacket that is too large, a tailor taking measurements with a yellow tape and the man slipping into a coat that fits. “Looks good,” he observes.

Keeping Production Simple
Michell made detailed storyboards and shot lists consisting mostly of short scenes that literally punctuate the spokesman’s sentences. The shots move into and out of close-ups showing the minimalist action of dominos falling, bricks being stacked, darts hitting bulls-eyes and the tailor taking measurements.

The commercials use only a couple of camera moves. The phone-chain has the most, with a push-in, pullback and a pan of the line of telephones — the only iconic symbol in the series that had no action of its own.

Lighting played a key role in sharpening the visuals. Michell flew Ultra Space Lights overhead to enhance the seamless look of the white background. He used a 20K key light to the spokesman’s right with a 20×20-foot light grid cloth to soften it a bit. He also employed a small fill light and a 5K back light placed off to the side.


A stack of bricks symbolizes Union Bank’s financial strength and security.

The props received special lighting treatment, too. “We flew lighting above the action,” Michell recalls. “In the domino spot, for instance, we used a Blanket-Lite ? a six-foot long Kino Flo with a dozen lamps sandwiched between a reflector and silk. It literally created a box of light that encased the shot of the falling dominos.”

He notes that “the scripts were so good that we kept paring things back to keep the ideas front and center. We ended up with a simple, clean color palette, strong iconographic elements, the right spokesperson and a shot list.

“After that, it was a matter of using the camera as an observational device, staying out of the way and letting the commercials happen.”

The final sharpening of the spots came at Splice in Minneapolis where Chadwick Nelson handled the creative edit and Michael Sandness the finishing and color correction.

As the film and video world grows more and more technologically sophisticated, it’s refreshing now and then to get back to the basics of making commercials, basics that never change and never get complicated: grab the viewers’ attention and deliver a crystal-clear message.


December 17, 2012