September 6, 2018

Can Directing a Spec Commercial Boost Your Career? Watch This New Viral Tesla Spot

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.     

Your Comment

10 Comments

I am curious as to the budget he had for this as it seems it had to be substantial for an indie/spec piece.
I would say most people have access to that kind of help, gear etc., so while I love the piece it may discourage those who do not have people who can help, gear etc.

September 6, 2018 at 4:41PM

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Paolo Mugnaini
Director/DP/Editor
113

exactly .... a well done "spec" especially if it goes viral ..is always a career builder..dah... at the end of that day ..who knows it's a spec .... I have an over the top Budweiser Super Bowl commercial.... if only they'd loan me a couple of Clydesdales...

September 6, 2018 at 10:15PM, Edited September 6, 10:15PM

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If you are trying to get real work as a commercial director, the answer to the headline is: NO! Spec work doesn't impress ad agencies or clients. I've been directing commercials for 30 years and have shot 25 Super Bowl spots. I've seen it all. For the most part spec work pisses professionals off. It's not playing by the same rules. Writing and directing ads is a pressure filled multi million dollar gamble. Clients beating you up, breathing down your neck and agency creatives with jobs on the line won't risk their asses on un tested talent. Very seasoned and well trained professionals worked their way up for years to get that opportunity. Then one day you show up and say "Hey look what i did on the weekend" No client, no agency, no strategic message you have to deliver, no deadline, no network restrictions and no advertising standards to meet. Shooting a spec spot doesn't prove you can handle ANY of that. Most likely you won't be hearing from Tesla....or the agency. Unless you write a spot that strategically fits the product marketing campaign and branding, people in the industry can tell instantly it's spec. I've seen a lot of spec work over the years. I can tell you that most ad agencies and clients have a rule to not entertain unsolicited ideas. Spec work's value is in the personal experience you get from it. It's time on the set, it's learning the craft, it's dealing with talent, it's collaborating with DP's...all valuable experiences, but that's where it stops.

September 7, 2018 at 4:02AM

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Steve chase
Director
164

Steve ...I suggest you be careful and watch your 6 .... you'll be on the sideline wondering what happened .. "just be cause we've always done it that way" is the quickest way to a fiery death ...just sayin

September 8, 2018 at 12:29AM

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I think it's a little late for a fiery death. After 30 years, I'm the one that'll be blowing it up! I have worked on the agency side and continue to work with creatives as a director daily. Spec spots don't impress. Period. But as i said in my previous post. They do have value in the
lessons learned. But don't expect Nike or Tesla or
Pepsi to come running to hire you......it doesn't happen that way and never will.
it's just the way it is. https://vimeo.com/212339852

September 8, 2018 at 1:37AM, Edited September 8, 1:42AM

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Steve chase
Director
164

I do feel like Steve Chase's points are fairly accurate. Sounds like he has a lot more experience than I do but, making a spec is like producing a new picture for your portfolio, in the stills world. It's a necessary thing. You have to keep adding to your book to let people know what you can do, image-wise, at least. It's what you should be doing when you aren't actually on a real job.

This Tesla spot is well done and deserves attention. Like Paolo said, I'd like to know how much it cost, too. Being that's always what people who read posts like this want to know, especially for a spec spot, why wasn't this question asked?

September 7, 2018 at 10:53AM, Edited September 7, 10:53AM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
1496

So 44.000 and something views counts as "going viral" these days? Not saying the spec isn't good, but not mentioning in any way, how that many talent, crew and locations where organised and paid for?
Maybe I'm getting to cynical with age, but this feels like some sort of guerrilla marketing. They pulled all this of and then deliberately only used one lens? And sure the story of the lo-fi BTS fits the rest, but all this effort and they couldn't find another person to shoot a little more with a t3i or an iPhone?
Again, great ad, but I wouldn't bet on the "spec" part.

September 8, 2018 at 9:14AM, Edited September 8, 9:14AM

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This article is definitely a booster to all the wannabe's out there. Thank you Erik for bringing it to us and Jono Seneff & the team who made this Spec Ad.

'If you believe it...Do it' because 'landscapes' out there are changing faster than our underpants.

September 8, 2018 at 9:54AM

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Arun Meegada
Moviemaker in the Making
273

Is that Arthur as the older dad? I think it is! He rocks!

September 9, 2018 at 12:59PM

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Patrick Ortman
I tell stories. Sometimes for money. Sometimes, not.
462

Here's how I see it. Disclaimer: I'm absolutely not Steve Chase. Yay Steve, you're super-duper-awesome!

1) You make a great spec, whether it's a spot or a personal project, whatever.
2) You never expect to fool people about it and pretend it's a real spot. Or that you'll get work from that brand.
3) You DO have an opportunity to use this spec to gain work from other (smaller, usually) brands or representation. Which looks to be what's happening, here.
4) You then begin the process of working up to bigger and better things, maybe someday if you're super-lucky and work your ass off, you get to replace Steve Chase when he retires from his 30 year career. Or maybe you go in a totally different direction.

But the point is, if you're not showcasing what you are capable of doing then you're just gonna stay on the sidelines forever. And the way people have come up in the past is not the way you might come up. That's OK. The world IS changing faster than your underpants (thanks Arun).

All that positivity aside, I also agree with the poster who mentioned budget. 4.5 days of main shooting with a crew of 20? A Tesla 3 series? Then additional pickup shots? All those locations? That's $$$$$. Kudos if you have it and know how to use it, I guess. And it sure is pretty.

September 9, 2018 at 1:29PM, Edited September 9, 2:21PM

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Patrick Ortman
I tell stories. Sometimes for money. Sometimes, not.
462