Monday, August 20, 2012

The Tony Scott "Showreel" at Robert Abel & Associates

This is a brief anecdote on how I first became aware of the work of Tony Scott.

When I started work at Robert Abel & Associates (RA&A)  in 1980 or so, while still running a laboratory at the Rand Corporation, I used to distract myself by prowling around the three-story studio on Highland and Romaine in the middle of the night.   Working at RA&A was my moonlighting job, I still had a real job during the day.

There were lots of things to see and people to talk to in a visual effects studio that used the traditional arts in the middle of the night back then.  Lots of artists on the third floor, Image G and Tom Barron shooting Pepsi Cola commercials in the stage next door, Rob Legato on Camera 2 shooting Eastern Airline commercials, John Nelson shooting camera, Steve Cooney on E&S1, Doc Baily on E&S 2, John Hughes working with Mary Lambert on a Happy Jacks commercial,  and so forth.

There was of course a room to watch videos and in that room there was a library of various commercial show reels, each of them on 3/4" video tape.   For those of you who were not around in the 1980s, 3/4" Umatic was the semi-professional video format of its day used in education and some documentary film work, but mostly used as a distribution format for professional sample reels and such things.  It was better than 1/2" and most places had at least one 3/4" machine around.

The library had about 50 or so "show reels" from various commercial directors internationally. I think some of them were just there because they were cool, and of course there were various RA&A sample reels of various collections (e.g. car commercials, broadcast openings, motion control), and of various RA&A directors: Clark Anderson, Randy Roberts, Kenny Mirman, etc.   I went through all of them and when I was giving a tour of the studio would usually show one of the RA&A reels of recent work to our visitors.

For those of you who are not aware of the commercial production business, it is very much a director's business, or at least it was and I suspect it still is.  It is amazingly competitive: unbelievably, insanely, ridiculously and pathologically competitive.  Did I mention vicious?  The primary tool of selling for the director was the "show reel" of recent work as distributed to various production companies and advertising agencies.  The show reel is an art form of a certain type: a tool by professionals used by them to sell their services to those who are in the position to hire directors.   I am sure it is filled with nuance and evil beyond imagination, for those who know how to read them, which I do not.

So as you have guessed by now, one of the show reels that was there in that library was the show reel for Tony Scott.    I have no idea why it was there.  I doubt Tony Scott worked with RA&A at least not that I ever heard about, and I am pretty sure I would have heard.  So the reel was just there because it was cool.     This was my introduction to the genre of British commercial directors, and the role of the British in inventing advertising as we know it, or at least as we knew it (it is of course changing again).

See for example the film Absolute Beginners (1986) by Julien Temple or read the famous book published in 1959 by Colin MacInnes on which it was based for an introduction to this history and the scene in England at the time.

The Tony Scott show reel was amazing.

I watched it over and over again.  Commercials are a complex art form, commercial by definition, and I recognize that there is a huge amount of skill and effort that can go into making them.  Such craft is essential, but may not be awe inspiring.  But this reel was very interesting.   It had no visual effects that I recall, no animation, maybe there was a motion controlled camera or two, but I didn't notice them.  It was great because of the style, the editing, the photography and the, pardon my French, filmmaking skill that went into them.

So far I have not found any Tony Scott commercial show reels online, but I suspect that they are there, or they will be there after his recent demise.   So I will update this post when I find one.   It will be interesting to see if it is still as impressive today as it seemed to me then.

[Addendum.  As promised, here is a link to some of the commercial work of Tony Scott, which can be found at Ridley Scott & Associates.  See here]

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