Super Bowl Success Story of a Workaday DP

Posted by Matthew Skala
Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto

"You will never find time for anything. If you want time you must make it." - Charles Buxton

I'm going to let that quote stand on its own as an opening to this terrific piece by Stage 32 member, Matt Skala.

The creative spirit, when focused and driven, is indomitable. Matt is a testament to that fact.

I thank him for his contribution to the community.

Enjoy.

RB

When I'm not shooting films, commercials, or music videos. I'm a public relations man. Not that I moonlight in PR, but I have to market myself in order to get work. It's a full-time job looking for jobs. It's the life I've chosen as a workaday cinematographer.

A big part of my job is staying in touch with other filmmakers, especially those I have a desire to work with. That's how I got the opportunity to shoot a Doritos commercial dubbed "Fashionista Daddy" that aired during the Super Bowl and came in #1 against 4700 qualified entries in the Doritos ad competition this year.

I studied film at the UNC School of the Arts School of Filmmaking with the director of the spot Mark Freiburger (Dog Days of Summer, Jimmy). Since graduating in 2005 with a BFA in Cinematography I've been working my way up through the camera department, starting as a Unit Stills Photographer, and now as a DP of numerous award-winning short films.

Even though I went to film school with Mark, we were just casual friends. We lost touch for years after graduation but I admired his work as a writer and director, and eventually sought him out. In addition to sitting down with me himself, he connected me with Nathan Scoggins, another filmmaker. I watched Nathan's film, The Least of These and was impressed by the movie and his non-propaganda approach to faith and spirituality. We met over coffee and had a great initial connection. Now we all just needed the right project to come along.

For the past seven years, Doritos has run a commercial contest called Crash the Super Bowl, where people can create and submit their own 30-second Doritos ad, with the ultimate goal of airing during the big game, and the potential to win big money if they rank first, second, or third on the prestigious USA Today Ad Meter. Nathan had been a part of two teams that had aired in the past; "Sling Baby" had even won a million bucks by landing first in the USA Today/Facebook Ad Meter in 2012! This year's contest promised big money, as well as the chance for the director of the winning spot to work with Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Armageddon) on the next Transformers movie.

"Fashionista Daddy"

This year, Nathan and Mark decided to team up with Gabe Trevino, a talented writer who had worked on other spots with Nathan, and Nate Daniels, a marketing whiz who had worked on last year's "Sling Baby". Armed with a great script from Trevino, they started crewing up, and coincidentally an e-mail I sent them about one of my films happened to catch their attention. Mark called and offered me the job. He told me how everyone was donating their time in hopes they would get a share of the cash prize if they landed in the Ad Meter's top three. He assumed I would want to talk to my wife and take some time to think about it, but I didn't, I said yes right away. It wasn't for the prize money; it was for the chance to work with Mark and Nathan, two really great guys whom I'd wanted to work with for a while. When on set with the rest of the crew, I realized they weren't doing this for the prize money either - they were doing it because they genuinely loved the art of creating together. And despite a small crew, it was one of the most fun and smoothest sets I have ever worked on. It was a hilarious spot, and we had a lot of laughs throughout the day. For those of you who haven't seen it, the spot revolves around a little girl who wants her football-loving dad to play a game of "princess fashion show" with her, and uses a bag of Doritos to entice him. When his football buddies show up later, he is decked out in a dress, tiara and makeup, and is unapologetic; and when his wife comes in later, she sees all the guys, now decked in full-on fashionista regalia, chomping on Doritos and having a great time.

When I arrived at the location for the first time, I studied how the natural light interacted with the space. We were to shoot in a bedroom on the sunny side of a ranch style home. I wanted to shoot our little princess in strong back light but didn't have any big lights. In determining the path of the sun I estimated what time and for how long the sun would be directly shining through the window and encouraged the crew to be ready to roll camera on JJ (the fashionista princess) at that time. Everything came together and while making last minute adjustments to the set dressing, dust and lint filled the air and twinkled in the sunlight. It looked amazing and felt appropriate for the theme of the spot. I encouraged Mark and the crew to go with it and at one point Nathan's daughter provided a bottle of fairy dust from her stash of princess play things and we were able to keep the effect fairly consistent by dragging a feather duster around on the floor and shaking it out around the room. It probably wasn't the healthiest thing in the world but it was worth it. Any discrepancies in continuity were made up for in post.

Once the dad came in, the direct sun light was gone. We only had a 1K and a 650 available, so we took them outside, placed them just out of frame and carefully dialed them in to where the dad, now in drag, stops and turns around to see his football buddies staring at him. The small units gave us just enough to feel some daylight on Dad. For our Key light inside the room we strategically bounced three 1k tungsten fresnel lights off the white walls and gelled them with full or half CTB to balance for the ambient daylight coming through the windows and exterior seen through the windows. At first I thought we were only going to have two 350's and one 650 (very small lights) for the entire shooting day. The budget was only $300 and that was spent mostly on renting dresses and buying Doritos. Thankfully, my collaborator Pierce Cook brought the 1k's to add to the mix.

Pierce also provided his Red Epic camera, new set of Cooke iPanchro prime lenses, and operating skills. I was excited to try these lenses and talked to Mark about only using the wider ones (18mm, 25mm, 32mm) in order to emphasize the comedic tone and gesturing in the performances. Mark thought it was a great idea and it worked out really well.

After a while on set, each step we took in the room came with a crunch. Chips were everywhere. I predict that the homeowners are going to be finding Dorito pieces on the floor for years to come. At lunch, we had lots of good food... and Doritos. Those chips didn't make it to anyone's plate, as we'd all been eating them the whole day.

When we found out the commercial made it to the top five, we were very excited. Michael Bay apparently made a point to comment on the look and production design of our commercial (kudos to our Art PA Lucy Bruckner!), and in a Charlotte Observer article, Frito Lay Director of Marketing Jeff Klein specifically praised the professionalism of the cinematography. Mark and Nathan organized a meeting to announce the victory (they tried to keep it a surprise but everyone knew). During the meeting, Nate Daniels laid out the plan for an extensive PR campaign. Making it to the Super Bowl depended largely on views and votes for the ad on the contest web site, and we all rolled up our sleeves.

Daniels and his marketing team created a Facebook page, a website with a "Fashionista Daddy" video game (check it out at www.fashionistadaddy.com), and created buzz to get press attention. They added content daily and we all sent out constant reminders to our friends, families, and colleagues to vote for the ad. (Some of our e-mail accounts got frozen and even flagged for abuse in the process!) Mark and Nathan pounded the pavement and were featured on NBC news, CNN, Fox News, and more. During the week approaching the Super Bowl, our story was featured on The Today Show, Good Morning America, NPR, and other major press outlets across the nation.

Super Bowl Sunday finally arrived and our efforts would be put to the test. I couldn't join the cast and crew because of a gig on a web series the same day. I thought about turning the job down but I hadn't worked with the filmmakers before and didn't want to miss an opportunity to build new relationships. Needless to say, I was on pins and needles all day. At a certain point while setting up a shot, my phone began buzzing nonstop in my pocket with texts and phone calls. I kept my composure, tried to remain professional on set. But I was dying to know what was happening with our commercial. When I got a break, I checked my phone. Our spot had aired during the Super Bowl! I casually mentioned it to someone on the web series set, and everyone went nuts with excitement for me. It was very cool.

Later that night, after the 49er's lost, I met up with some of the "Fashionista Daddy" crew at a sushi place in the Valley. We were glued to our smart phones in eager anticipation to see if we won. At about 10:30 p.m., we got the news: our spot won first-place in the Doritos challenge against 4,700 qualified entries. As for our standing in the USA Today Ad Meter, we didn't get first, second or third place, we got fourth, just by a hair, behind spots from major ad firms representing Anheuser-Busch, Tide and Dodge Ram. No cash. We all sat around the table at the sushi joint in stunned silence. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, I was a 49'ers fan. My dream scenario was that the Niners would win the Super Bowl and our commercial would win a million dollars. But if the Niners can stomach 2nd place, surely we could accept 4th.

Each of the Doritos five finalists received $25,000, and our ad will be airing for the next year - great exposure for all of us! Additionally, Doritos told us that we had gotten more press attention than any other ad in their competition, ever - a tribute to the creativity and hard work of our team. More importantly, we have built on some great relationships, and will certainly be working together again. No doubt this commercial is a milestone in my career. I am very proud of it and grateful to Mark and Nathan for having me on board. However, that doesn't mean I can just sit back and wait for the jobs to come. Nope, it's back to my PR job - the job of a workaday cinematographer.


Matt Skala has worked on several award-winning projects as a DP, including: a short thriller Behind You, directed by Benjamin Freiburger which won best film at the Carnival Of Darkness last year; a Dark Comedy Short called No Vacancy, directed by Siddarth Gupta, that was accepted into Cannes last year; A Nice Day For an Earthquake, another short directed by Antony Berrios, an official selection in the LA Downtown Film festival and Vision Fest in 2008. While still in film school, his work received a Nomination for the ASC/Charles B. Lang Heritage award and an honorable mention from the Budapest Cinematography Master Class in 2005. He is a graduate of UNCSA.

Matt is available for questions and remarks in the Comments section below.

 
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