As an indie commercial goes viral, its creator chats with No Film School about the origins of the project.
The best way to pull off a spec commercial is to remember that it's all about the story, not the product. If you have the creativity to manage a compelling, narrative-reliant story in an extremely short period of time, trust your instincts and go with it. Excel at the telling of the story and, along with some solid technical craftsmanship wherever you can find it, your spec will be as much a representation of a product as it is of your talent.
Filmmaker Jono Seneff took this to heart when crafting his spec commercial for the Tesla Model 3. Based on both a personal experience involving hearing loss and a dream he had one night, Seneff's concept is less about an automobile than it is a father/daughter relationship. At one point in the film, are they driving in a Tesla? Of course, but there's a reason they're in a car, and the narrative payoff is its own form of a climaxing tearjerker.
As the spec has gone viral, Seneff has been experiencing a career uptick over the past few weeks. NFS spoke with him about that, as well as his concept for the project and why the story was such a personal one for him. You can view the spec below.
No Film School: What prompted you to make a "fan-made" Tesla Model 3 commercial in the first place?
Jono Seneff: The story is personal. I grew up in a very musical home and I, too, lost hearing in my right ear for a month in college. I found myself in one of those soundproof rooms with an ear doctor playing different frequencies into special headphones and me just shaking my head like the character does as he losing his hearing in the spec. I wrote the script but it sat dormant on my hard drive as I became busy with other projects.
Months later, I found myself attending a panel about independent film distribution where a young director mentioned how he had made a car spec that had gotten him representation. I actually didn’t hear the rest of the story because I walked out of the panel, mad at myself for not having made my own. That very night, I decided to actually make the project happen. I knocked on a few doors and made a few calls. Six weeks later, we were in the middle of a lake bed shooting our own car commercial.
NFS: Were there Tesla marketing materials you drew from that inspired this project?
Seneff: The only marketing materials I used was my own experience driving a Tesla. I drove a Model S P75 a few years ago. I am a Tesla / SpaceX nerd so before I ever got anywhere close to driving a Tesla I knew all of the specifications. But once I hit the pedal, everything that I had read about Tesla—the 0-60 stats, the production process, how the batteries work— just fell away as I was accelerating from a stoplight.
It’s a completely different driving experience, so that is what we tried to convey with this commercial. Instead of just displaying features, we attempted to turn facts into feelings and specs into prose. We may not be able to give the audience a test drive right now, but we can say, “Here is what it is like,” and see if that grabs them.
NFS: What compelled you to draw from a father/daughter narrative for your piece?
Seneff: The story and the imagery of the spec actually came from a dream I had where this deaf Beethoven-esque character had hooked up this massive array of speakers to an electric organ. The speakers were so loud that it would shake the earth enough for him to feel the music he was playing. I basically thanked my subconscious for that piece of concept art and asked my conscious mind, “What can we do with this?”
I then reverse engineered a story with that character that could end on that image from my dream and I thought a father-daughter story would be the best way to sew together the other elements I knew I wanted in the spot.
NFS: How large was your crew? How long was the shoot?
Seneff: The crew size oscillated depending on what we were shooting. We had everything from 20 people to just me and an actor. For the house interiors, we had the largest crew with around 20 people on set between camera, G&E, wardrobe, HMU, and art. For one pickup shot— the scene where the teenager is in bed putting on headphones— was just me leaning a tripod on two legs over our actor, Joe Burnell, to mimic a slight jib move.
The shooting dates were very scattered as we were working around a lot of different schedules. We shot the desert and the house scenes in about 4.5 days and then got all the other shots after that piece by piece.
NFS: What did you shoot on?
Seneff: We shot on the Red Dragon in 6K Full Frame Raw with a single lens, the 21 mm Zeiss CP.3. We finished in 4K with an aspect ratio that changes from scope to 16x9 for the final scene of the commercial.
I’m a fan of using aspect ratio as another storytelling tool. As much as I love his films, Chris Nolan’s haphazard intercutting of IMAX with the scope ratio has always bothered me. What we tried to do here is make the aspect ratio change something that was dictated by the story, not by a production restraint (i.e The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire).
NFS: What was your casting process like?
Seneff: Casting was probably the most complicated part of the process. We had to cast five versions (60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and present day) of the father character and three versions of the daughter character. Age-induced actor swapping almost never works for me in feature films, so I’ll admit that am not sure why I decided to write something that required it…
My first roommate in Los Angeles, Arvin Lee, is an amazing actor and also happens to know all the technical ins and outs of breakdown services and the casting process at large. I put him in charge of casting and we did all of the auditions together. We used CAZT, which is a free casting space in LA, and we saw hundreds of people for the different roles.
We did multiple chemistry tests with the father and the daughter where we had the different actors improvise an early morning driving scene together. Once we had locked present-day versions of the characters, we could start going back in time and figuring out who of the many people who submitted headshots could pass as younger versions of them. This process was very time consuming and research-heavy.
NFS: Have you heard that Tesla has seen the ad?
Seneff: Not yet. That being said, the response we have gotten on Youtube has been incredible, and there is a small army of people who are tweeting at Elon Musk with links to the video to try to get him to see it.
NFS: What has its success brought to your filmmaking career? Any further offers?
Seneff: I’ve had a lot of people reaching out asking to collaborate together on future projects. It has grown my network more than on any other project I’ve done. Some smaller companies have seen the film and reached out to inquire about future projects as well.
The work I have gotten from the film has already paid for the film itself. The caveat to all of this is that unless you make something that taps into the zeitgeist, there is a good chance it won’t catch online. You have to tie your content to something that has a built-in audience. You can make short films until you are blue in the face, but people aren’t necessarily searching for those online.
NFS: Is making a special commercial such as this a gateway to further work in branded content?
Seneff: At the end of the day, I am focused on narrative feature filmmaking, but not many people in their twenties have the opportunity to do that. The best way I’ve found to practice the skills involved in movie-making while also making a living is doing branded content. It’s basically a way of getting paid to make short films.
A note on our BTS footage above: Our BTS photos and videos are hilariously unsexy, but I love it. I think it’s a little weird when films make super polished behind-the-scenes videos because it really doesn't represent how unglamorous being on set really is. My favorite behind-the-scenes ever is probably Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Nobody on our set could spare a moment to actually shoot proper BTS, so it’s just a rag-tag collection of crew members’ iPhone footage and Instagram stories combined and contrasted with the final images.