Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Making "WMD" -- my Eco-Spot PSA submission for Current TV...

Back on July 12, I learned about a competition being staged by Current TV and The Alliance for Climate Protection, calling for advertising agencies and communications professionals to create public service announcement 'eco-spots' in 15-, 30- or 60-second lengths, addressing the issues of global warming and providing local or national calls-to-action. I was one of hundreds of bloggers who picked up and promoted the opportunity, many of us using similar headlines.  My choice was "Create an ad to help save the world..."

While I did "blog" about the Sept. 12 deadline for submissions, it was only after reading a story in the September issue of Boards magazine entitled "Taking stock of climate change" that I came to understand stock footage provider ITN Source was making selected footage available to contributors, and that music producer Carmen Rizzo was providing original music.  By virtue of those revelations, on Sept. 5, I realized I had a chance to cobble together a respectable entry for the competition, and I therupon added this task to my To-Do list.

Like the well-trained advertising pro I am, I began by compiling a creative platform, whereupon I realized I needed to create a strong call to action that would appeal to the widest possible audience.  I made notes of ideas, including one about exploring the notion of "haves" versus "have-nots," and contrasts between those groups (possibly showing people of power/influence expressing dissatisfaction, in contrast to people suffering hardships showing joy or appreciation), and sought-out copy from traditional wedding vows ("I take you  to be my partner for life, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health...") and an interpretation of Corinthians I 13:4-8 I deeply appreciate:  "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.... Love never fails."

I also watched what is, in my humble opinion, the world's greatest PSA of all time:  Keep America Beautiful.  Of course, more than 35 years after its original release, it's pretty dated... but still quite powerful, for numerous reasons, each of which I noted in my platform.

On the evening of Sept. 6, I went to Current's site and reviewed the stock, beginning with the music.  I liked just about every track for different reasons, but I didn't find anything that I felt was right for this.  With all due respect to the vast talents of Mr. Rizzo, many of the tracks seemed very techno, and even danceable.  Personally, I feel that simple acoustic tracks would have lent themselves better to this assignment, and yet will watch with interest to see how the provided tracks are used, knowing that one may very well add just the right dimension to the winning contribution.

Accepting that I was on my own to come up with music, I began thinking thematically... and compiling a list.  I listened to "Cool Change" from The Little River Band, to "Burning Down the House" from The Talking Heads, to "One Thing Leads to Another" from The Fixx.  All great songs with much to bring to a project like this.  With all those tracks ready on my computer, I began working on picture.

The thumbnails for the 20 or so video clips made available by ITN Source seemed to cover many of the "cause" types of visuals that are easily associated with global warming, including traffic jams, smokestacks belching pollution, deforestation, etc.  There was also some interesting "solution" imagery, like a scientist looking into a microscope, a kid clicking on a computer... but honestly, much of the stock footage I was hoping for (which you will instantly see if you go to ITN Source's actual website) was absent, including any political figures speaking, any footage of groups of people engaging in activism or demonstrations, people talking in groups large or small, people experiencing hardships, etc.  Based upon this summary review of the available stock, I felt fairly strongly that the winning entries would probably not be composed from those selections alone.  Nonetheless, I began downloading them, and completed that process through the course of my Friday workday.

By 5pm that day, Sept. 7, I, my wife and our kids took off to join a group of five other couples and their kids for an annual ritual, where we meet at a place called Camp Merrie-Woode, which sits on Fairfield Lake in western North Carolina in a town called Sapphire.  I had my MiniDV video camera with me, and I was shooting some footage of the kids and adults boating on the lake in the Saturday afternoon sunshine.  While looking through the viewfinder, I had an epiphany and realized that this footage could fill in what was missing between my ideal shotlist and the footage provided for this competition by ITN Source.  I quickly switched from LP to SP and took some measures to stabilize the camera, wishing I hadn't left my tripod at home. 

On Sunday evening, Sept. 9, I returned home and locked myself in my office.  Assessing my situation, I realized there was no way I could get clearance in time to use a popular music track from a major label, and was probably going to need to download something from a royalty-free online resource.  I also took stock of what I consider to be my best strengths:  concepting, copywriting and editing.  With this focus, I began trying to pin-down the voiceover copy.  The marital vows and other ideas quickly fell by the wayside as it became clear that I needed a direct plea that was as strong as possible.  But how could I make it appeal broadly, while also setting it apart creatively? 

I had already sorted the list of short descriptions for the stock footage into a sort of edit decision list, without even seeing the actual footage.  With that level of conception, I was imagining the spot coming together sort of like a newsreel from the 30s, 40s and 50s.  For inspiration, I dug out a CD-ROM of Time Magazine's Almanac of the 20th Century and watched some of the more famous newsreels from those eras.  The style of the voiceover announcers, the booming orchestral accompaniment and the quick-punch effect of those pieces were all very helpful as I began to package my concept.

So, if I was going to do a newsreel-type PSA, having just viewed some very powerful ones documenting World War II, I started thinking that there is a very strong, almost universal disdain for the Iraq war at the moment.  What if I was to take the footage and cut together a newsreel using voiceover language that has been made infamous through political maneuvering during the Iraq war?  For example, "shock and awe," "weapons of mass destruction," "insurgents," "balance of power," "victory," "power," "crisis," etc.  With this idea, over a period of less than an hour, the copy almost wrote itself. 

I knew that the music was still going to be key, and with a clear sense of wanting an orchestral piece with strong horns, I began my search online.  I may have spent an hour, two at the most, but the search was well worthwhile.  For less than $40, I was able to find the perfect track from, and download it instantly.

I unzipped the ITN Source clips and began cutting the piece together using Adobe Premiere.  There again, by uniting the "cause" footage with the cut-down I made of the music track, the first half of the spot came together like a dream.  The second half came together, but it was definitely a case of trying to make something work without having the right footage.  I recorded the voiceover, using a sort of Britishy accent similar to one that had stuck in my mind after watching the 1940s newsreels.  The result was fun and semi-complete, but it needed polishing.

Thankfully, the footage I shot at Camp Merrie-Woode filled in the second half of the spot in a couple of crucial areas with footage that accomplished at least some of my goals... adding visions of regular people doing things that could reasonably be construed as activities related to local actions against global warming.  After getting some feedback from my wife and my friends, I re-worked my voiceover until I came up with a read-through that sounds urgent and authentic.

Yesterday, reading more of the fine print at Current's site for this project, I realized that I needed to have signed clearance forms for everyone who appeared in my original footage -- and for the music.  It took me several hours today to get the proper forms to the proper people with the proper explanations, and thankfully my producing skills served me well, as my fax machine delivered signed versions of every last piece of required paperwork before 9pm this evening.  After doublechecking the spot's timing, I uploaded it to Current's site by 9:30pm, and will now await the findings of the celebrity judges -- including Cameron Diaz, George Clooney, Orlando Bloom, Rihanna, Sam Mendes, Alex Bogusky, Joe Pytka and others -- and then, the voters on Current's site. 

And here, I ask you to please wish me and the other contributors luck... in fulfilling our mutual goal of driving others to join the fight in reversing the adverse effects of global warming.  It's a wrap....