The Super Bowl is arguably the most high-pressured environment for creating TV commercials. The spotlight is on, the critics are ready, the media spend is through the roof and everyone is keeping score. And while there’s often talk about the directors who shot these ads, the real pushing and shoving typically takes place after the shoot has been wrapped. That’s when the action shifts to the world of post production, where editors, VFX artists, colorists, sound designers and audio mixers start working their magic.
In truth, some of this ‘post’ work has already been done – at least when it comes to complicated visual effects or CG. But the edit, the grade and the mix often have to wait until the footage is shot, and for these artists, that’s when the fun begins. Most of the time, things go smoothly – even when working under remote, pandemic conditions. But that’s not to say there isn’t the occasional white-knuckle ride every now and then.
To get a better sense of what working on Super Bowl spots is like for the post production industry, we spoke with Megan Dahlman of PS 260 and Sherri Margulies of Crew Cuts, and Tim Jacobs of Optimus, along with Jason Mayo of Bonfire, Paul DeKams of Irving Harvey and Andrew Feltenstein of Beacon Street Studios. Here’s what they had to say.
How would you describe the pressure post houses are under when they’re working on a Super Bowl spot? Does the big-ticket media buy, not to mention the glaring national spotlight, add to the intensity?
Megan Dahlman, PS 260: There’s so much prestige and hype that comes with working on a Super Bowl ad that it just adds to the pressure. Everyone involved has so much at stake. We have to remind ourselves we’re just making ads, not saving lives!
Jason Mayo, Bonfire: To be honest, the only thing different to us is that we get to slow down after we deliver and take a moment to enjoy it like everyone else. Usually when we’re working on an intense project, Super Bowl or otherwise, we’re too caught up in the day to day to pay attention to the added hype. The relationships we have with the clients stay the same, whether it’s a regional spot or something with way more exposure.
Sherri Margulies, Crew Cuts: More pressure indeed. Super Bowl ads have become part of the zeitgeist. Everyone, from your grandmother to your doctor, are talking about which ads they thought were good or bad on Monday morning. And of course you want the ones you work on to be in the good column. That being said, we work our butts off to make everything we touch the best it can be, even if only a few people see it.
Andrew Feltenstein, Beacon Street: The pressure usually comes from external sources. The agencies, for example, are under a lot of pressure to be extra smart or extra funny. For us, we treat every job like it’s a Super Bowl spot, with the same attention and creative approach. So when there’s a Super Bowl spot in the studio, there’s no pressure felt from within; it’s just business as usual.
Paul DeKams, Irving Harvey: There’s definitely added pressure. Not just in delivering this Super Bowl spot, but in making sure the agencies you’re working with come to you for the next Super Bowl spot, and as much as they can in between. In some cases it’s a chance to build on or expand a relationship, or to change the perception of how you’re viewed in the industry.
Tim Jacobs, Optimus: It definitely adds to the intensity of the entire project but specifically finish. Things have changed a lot since we no longer deliver tapes. Now, we’re able to correct any sort of finish errors within minutes. Used to be if there was a problem it would require a serious fire drill to get a new master to the network.
There’s always such a focus on who directed Super Bowl spots, less so on editors, effects artists, colorists and mixers. Do you think the glory should be shared a bit more evenly?
Jason Mayo: That’s kind of a loaded question. Any project we’re a part of has always been a collaboration of many – that’s the fun of it. I think the directors get well-deserved credit because they’re often leading the charge, especially if it’s primarily a live action project. I’m biased, because I've been on the post side of things my whole career and see the countless nights and weekends artists and producers spend to get things looking as amazing as they do. In post there tends to be a lot of magic happening behind the curtain, which is why we often get overlooked. I’ve never met a dedicated creative whose passion is driven by glory. Art is more personal than that.
Sherri Margulies: I’ve spent decades with people staring at the back of my head, and I like it that way. I think editors, effects artists and mixers are in it because we love what we do. We are craftspeople and collaborators at heart. So nah, I think the glory should go to the creatives who came up with the idea, without whom there would be no Super Bowl spots!
Paul DeKams: It’s not unique to advertising or the Super Bowl to laser focus on directors. They’re an easy entry point into the story of creating something, and it can be tough getting everyone into the story without things getting cluttered. I think overall you see a good effort to credit all partners involved, but having been on the marketing side of things, I do think it could be an easier process to get credited, and get permission to post on your website, showreel, etc. There are certain clients that are more restrictive, and ultimately we all need to be able to tell everyone about our latest and greatest in order to win our next big project without worrying about violating an agreement.
Andrew Feltenstein: It’s a trick question – of course the director is the star, but it does take a full cast of characters to put on a show. It also depends on the commercial and what’s leading the creative – some are music driven, some are driven by visual effects, etc. This is the same way we approach crediting music as well – we always credit Beacon Street Studios, as opposed to an individual. It takes a lot of creative input to get that one idea to go final.
Tim Jacobs: I can’t help but speak as an account executive here. I truly believe everyone -- from the client to the agency account team and planners to the producers, the creatives, the director and the post/finishing house – all deserve all deserve equal credit. Because it’s not a Super Bowl spot until it airs!
Megan Dahlman I’ve always wished that the glory could be more evenly spread. Not to take anything away from the director, but the editors are the ones who crafted what you see on the screen. It’s a collaboration for sure, but at the end of the day it’s the editor that gets it there.
Does the degree of difficulty change when there’s a Super Bowl spot in the house? Are there more approvals, greater scrutiny, more cooks in the kitchen?
Sherri Margulies: I think more eyeballs = more pressure. While every campaign, big and small, is important to us, when it comes to flagship media buys there tends to be more players on both the agency and brand sides -- which translates to more cuts, more late nights, and ultimately a more intense vibe overall.
Andrew Feltenstein: Yes, the approval process is much more scrutinized. There are a lot more eyes and ears, so unfortunately that tends to lead to a little more overthinking as well. We see ourselves as creative partners, and while there is added complexity, it does not affect our process.
Paul DeKams: I think the goal for most artists and producers is to make sure their clients are feeling a bit less pressure. Things might get a bit more hectic due to a variety of factors, but I’ve learned a lot from post producers and artists who are able to take what all those cooks in the kitchen have given them, finish it to perfection, and serve it up to an audience of millions without letting anyone see them sweat.
Megan Dahlman: It differs depending on who is in the spots. Celebrities add another layer of approvals, and typically Super Bowl spots have celebrities, so that adds on more layers and approvals!
Tim Jacobs: Often time there’s a closed-door policy when Super Bowl spots are in house. So everyone is aware of the sensitivity of keeping it secure. It’s definitely important that everyone know that it’s not to be leaked, but all artists and producers are brought up this way, so it’s just a matter of communication. It’s something everyone at post houses are used to.
Jason Mayo: That’s usually the case. I think the end client especially has the most at stake because of the huge amount of money allocated to the media buy. Generally agencies have top tier creatives and producers on their Super Bowl ads, so there's a lot of experience on the team. We rely heavily on our producers to keep things moving. The amount of communication that a post producer has between the post team and the agency can make or break a project. If you have a great pipeline that’s tested and efficient, it should work for any project coming through.
Do you think agencies are more willing to work with independent post shops, versus letting their in-house post units handle Super Bowl jobs? Does it give them an added sense of security?
Sherri Margulies: Dang, I hope so. Deep down, I believe creatives and producers know the elite talent remains at the independent shops. And when it comes to the Super Bowl, they’re looking for the best. Many projects are cut in-house for efficiency. But an independent shop like Crew Cuts can actually offer A-list talent, editors, mixers and graphic artists, while tackling insane schedules and rolling with whatever punches it takes to put out the best creative. Oh, and if you ask nicely we can make you a sweet deal, too!
Tim Jacobs: Don’t take this the wrong way, but I support independent post shops anytime I’m asked about independent vs. in-house post. I love and respect all of my amazing friends and artists at in-house shops, but my history has always been working for independent shops, so I’m a bit biased.
Megan Dahlman: I think that for the Super Bowl, they want the top tier talent, and you find that at the independent post shops.
Andrew Feltenstein: I’d say that fortunately from the music perspective it’s always best to go with the expertise of real musicians. I can’t speak for the other specialties.
Jason Mayo: I don’t necessarily think it has to do with more security, but rather who’s right for the creative. If there’s a specific style the client is looking for, it’s been my experience that the agency will call on shops known for that type of work. The in-house post units are at a huge disadvantage in this case, because the range of work they see is probably not as extensive as at an independent shop like Bonfire. I also don’t think in-house post units have access to the talent independent shops have either, because of the wide reach we’ve gained through constant collaboration with artists.
Paul DeKams: I think it ultimately comes down to who the decision makers trust. In-house post units have grown over the years, as has the freelancer pool, so I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the best artists or talent are solely located at independent post shops. Making the assumption that Super Bowl spots means a budget with less constraints, then I’d say that gives agencies more freedom to pull together the team they need -- across internal and external resources -- to achieve their creative exactly as they intend it
Over the years, what’s been your most exhilarating Super Bowl experience? And most harrowing?
Megan Dahlman: Producing Volkswagen’s “The Force” back in 2011, when I was at Union Editorial, was the most exhilarating. It was the first time a brand released its commercial before the big game. This spot has gone down as one the best Super Bowl ads of all time. Luckily, I don’t have a harrowing experience! :)
Jason Mayo: I don’t think harrowing is the best word to describe any of the experiences I’ve had -- that’s more like what my teenage daughters put me through. I remember working on a number of E*TRADE “talking baby” spots back in the day. Those were extremely high profile at the time, so there were a lot of eyes on us. It was also extremely post/VFX heavy, so most of the pressure fell on us. In the end, those are the projects that are the most rewarding, because you know it took your best to get it done right.
At the moment we’re working with the NFL and Ticketmaster; they’ve commissioned Bonfire to create NFTs for all of the matchups throughout the playoffs and leading up to the Super Bowl. The schedule is extremely tight, because most of the matchups were decided at the last minute, so there wasn’t much time to execute. We have experience with NFTs, so we’re able to guide them through the process and what it would take to execute at a high level of creativity, while taking into consideration the limits you have in the medium.
Sherri Margulies: Exhilarating? Britney Spears’ “Joy of Pepsi.” It was a music video with insane choreography and an amazing pop star showcasing the product in a fun way…and featured a political cameo, while collaborating with some of the best in the business. Wow! Harrowing? Pepsi’s “Stranded.” The entire spot relies on the audience recognizing the sound of a dollar bill being put in a vending machine and being spit back out, without seeing the visual. So tricky. Mixer Tom Jucarone of Sound Lounge and I went all around New York City recording different vending machines. And guess what? The real thing sounds nothing like what you think it does in your head.
Andrew Feltenstein: Our most exhilarating was the Honda “Sheep” spot with Bryan Buckley. We did the music re-recording and vocal arrangement, and our choir of singers was motion-captured so that when the sheep sang (the track was from Queen, no less!), their lip movements were perfectly accurate. It was an awesome experience. And it’s always nice to work with Bryan.
Paul DeKams: Thinking that I was going to win it all in the Nice Shoes Super Bowl pool. Same answer for both questions.
Tim Jacobs: My most exhilarating experience was gaining an insight into a certain beer’s Super Bowl marketing process. They only had a couple of spots in the game, but they made more than twice the number of spots. I thought that was so cool and smart from a marketing perspective, as it made sure their ads could reflect what was going on in the world right at the time of the game.
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