Anatomy of a higher ed broadcast commercial

The process we followed in developing and producing an award-winning commercial for OSU.

December 3, 2015


“I think there should be a real war against commercials,” said Werner Herzog, the great German director famous for his cerebral documentaries and his dark narrative voice. Charlie Brown warned us of the perils of commercialism as he stood next to his sad little tree. Edward Abbey famously called the television, “the Great American Lobotomy Machine.” For much of my life I largely agreed with this trinity of wise souls, swearing off the tee vee, opting instead to spend my time with trout streams and Russian novels, pretending to be both a Luddite and somewhat clever.

Suddenly too many years have slipped by and here I am now working on commercials. Am I a hypocrite, a pragmatist, or was the younger, more idealistic me just plain wrong? Maybe all three or none of the above.

After dabbling in film, I’ve come to appreciate the artistry, creativity and craft that goes into commercials. The good ones, not the local pitches for your town chiropractor…though even some of those have their moments. Everything from the writing, visual style, editing, narration, composition can be quite sublime in a well-made television pitch. Certainly, nothing on screen garners more attention per frame than the classic 30-second broadcast spot, with many TV spots sporting budgets that rival feature films.

Which brings me to our latest broadcast commercial at Oregon State. Our budget was nominal. Microscopic by industry standards. What’s more, it was it was put together by a band of in-house state employees, not some fancy agency where creative types get to wear retro tee shirts and cool glasses. But still, our commercial will be seen by millions thanks to an agreement between our school, the NCAA and the networks that broadcast our sporting events. It’s a great deal, really…we get to show our commercial, basically for free, during the only type of programming left on television where people actually watch the commercials: live sports. Corporations would pay millions for that kind of exposure. But our little homemade commercial gets shown instead. Take that AT&T, Nike and Cialis!

So we made a commercial at OSU. In house. Take a look, and then I’ll tell you how it was put together:

So after watching the commercial, you might be wondering a few things: What’s with the ocean stuff? Well, OSU has a historic legacy of strength in marine and ocean research, plus there’s a brand new Marine Studies Initiative (so big it even has its own website!) that is bringing an expanded ocean focus to all of our colleges and programs. Why didn’t you show the campus? I really wish you would have. We usually do, but we had a different point to make this year. Oh, and we thank alumni like you for your ongoing support. Did you use a drone? No, we actually strapped and intern to a weather balloon.

We started the process with some internal conversation. We had some agreement that this would be a rare opportunity to have a focused commercial. Most university television spots say the same thing: we do a lot of stuff, and we’re good at all of it. Cue the students tossing a frisbee on the quad. Cue the one handed catch in the end zone. Cue the lab assistant in a white coat and safety glasses holding a beaker colored with food dye. You get the picture. The root word of university is ‘universe.’ It’s tempting to try to be ecumenical when it comes to your lone television spot, especially when there’s a room full of people to please. But vague, broad claims filled with cliche images and fancy boardroom words are deadly boring in the world of marketing and basically try to say so much that they wind up saying nothing.

But we figured we could be bold this year and actually say something concrete, and thankfully our leaders agreed. Our university launched a Marine Studies Initiative this year, which connected all of our eleven colleges. The groundwork had already been established, and that helped greatly to sell the concept.

We wanted to say something simple. Our basic message was, “The ocean needs our help, so we’re helping the oceans.” Bam, get ‘r done, OSU.

The next step was to brainstorm ideas. We had several versions and concepts for how we could bring the marine environment to life. One concept included a woman surfing. But the pitch that actually stuck was an idea to illustrate the path that water takes to the sea from glaciers in the Cascades to the open ocean. That had a nice downhill visual metaphor that’s easy to grasp.

This pitch had a number of things going for it right off the bat. First, the concept that the ocean environment extends to the mountains is a core concept of our Marine Studies Initiative. Next, if you follow water from the glaciers to the ocean in Oregon, you encounter some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. We knew the scenery would be a character in the piece. Probably the main character.

I wrote a rough script and made some image notes. The original idea followed a single drop of water from glacier melt all the way to the sea, and along the way you’d encounter OSU people in the real places where they conduct research or connect to the landscape. I took that script to a talented illustrator on our team, Oliver Day, and he created illustrations to match the script, giving us our storyboards.


We asked a student worker to read the script. It wasn’t just some random intern, though, it was Claire McMorris, who had a wealth of theater experience and happens to be the very sort of exceptional, involved student who we like to show off. We set it to music and showed the concept to our leadership team next to some other options that approached the idea of marine studies from other angles, and they made their choice and green-lit it on the spot.

That posed something of a problem. We now had to execute what we had designed. And in a hurry. Our concept called for nine different locations and dozens of people across a range of environments. What’s more, we were running out of dry weather (a precious commodity in our corner of Oregon). Our team wanted to also be sure that our commercial featured people represented a number of different programs across the university and ensure that the research was accurately portrayed and was as ecumenical as possible, even if most images were on screen for less than a second.

Enter the scheduling fiasco.

But we soldiered on and started shooting, assembling different teams and sending them to the far corners of the state with some packs full of camera gear, some emergency OSU sweatshirts and a granola bar or two.

The locations we filmed included a receding glacier on Mt. Hood, mountain streams, a rocky seaside cliff and a collection of boats on the open ocean and even a dive shot in one of the tanks in the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

The concept shifted away from following a single drop of water as the script was workshopped through the usual channels, but the fluid downhill motion remained a metaphor throughout the project. The script was more like the connecting tissue. The basic function of the words was to deliver this concept at the culminating point: the ocean is facing the greatest challenge in human history, and OSU is rising to meet that challenge.

The downhill motion was a vital visual metaphor…the bones of the piece. The script served as the tendons. But there is one more component that is equally as vital, and that is the transition style. Justin Smith and Darryl Lai on our team helped create this concept of a circular movement from a wide, aerial landscape shot transitioning to a handheld shot. That transition helped to emphasize two important points about OSU: our community is made up of real people, and Oregon’s landscapes are our spectacular natural laboratories. This concept of place and people was technically executed through a mechanical camera technique. I’m reminded that Tolstoy, when asked what was most vital in storytelling, plot or character, the age old dichotomy, he answered to everyone’s surprise: transition. Storytelling is all about transitions, or so says old Lev Nikolayevich.

And who said 30-second commercials couldn’t be literary?

So to get a sense of how we executed those transitions, check out our behind-the-scenes footage:

Because every detail and every person featured in the commercial was the result of a lot of thought and attention to authentic nuance, we didn’t want all of that detail to exist solely in the heads of the people who made the commercial. We developed a companion website to help tell the deeper story behind the images, and we plan to make it part of a larger campaign celebrating Oregon State’s commitment to protecting and understanding our natural resources at a critical point in history. In past years we’ve been equally faithful to authenticity with our commercials, with every person featured, even narrators, being a real member of the OSU community with a real story. But often, the only people who knew this fact were on our communications team. It would get mentioned at conferences and in meetings and the like, but through this website we hope to extend that concept and showcase the people who made this all possible.

The great thing about a project like this, where you work on location with people from different backgrounds, colleges and disciplines, is that you really become invested in their personal stories and their work. Some of the people I met on this project have already become new friends. All of them and their work will become parts of our future storytelling efforts.

Finally, here’s our extended version of the commercial. You can get a sense of the range and volume of material you need to shoot to get a 30-second spot like this:


Stats & Credits:
– DJI Inspire 1
– Panasonic GH4
– Audio mix by Digital One, Portland, Oregon
– Music: In Anticipation of Flight, D. Holter/M. Smith, License Lab
– Director – David Baker
– Cinematography – Darryl Lai, Justin Smith
– Behind the scenes – Kegan Sims, Oliver Day
– Storyboards – Oliver Day
– Design – Santiago Uceda, Oliver Day, Kegan Sims
– Additional writers – Callie Newton, Gary Dulude
– Producers – Laura Shields, Melody Oldfield, Brittney Yeskie, Larry Pribyl
– Web development – Kegan Sims


CATEGORIES: Multimedia Projects

64 thoughts on “Anatomy of a higher ed broadcast commercial

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