Anyone who’s interested in film as an academic exercise has to contend with the skepticism of people who think movies are simply for entertainment (and why aren’t you studying something useful like engineering?). It always fascinates me, however, that those same people can so blithely ignore the fact that most of their impressions of the past hundred years are connected to film, as are their impressions of current events, and many of their daily consumerist appetites. Neatly conflating all three of those categories is the current London Olympics. We don’t see them in anything like the raw form we might experience if we were in the stands, but rather in neatly packaged little films which eliminate the boring bits and heighten the drama. This is also true of the barrage of Olympic commercials, which have even less time to convince us of the earth-shaking-ness of a given product, while connecting it to the grandiosity of the Olympic tradition.
I try to draw frequent attention to the “toolbox” available to filmmakers as they construct their work, which includes such qualities as photography, lighting, casting, editing, music, sets, dialogue, story construction, etc. I’ve listed the most obvious, but there are certainly others. These things are all in evidence during Olympic coverage, especially in the “closing montage” which conflates hours worth of footage into skillfully edited highlights played against suitably stirring music. For this post I don’t want to dwell on the broadcast itself, however (or the commissioned Olympic films such as OLYMPIA and TOKYO OLYMPIAD which do the same thing) Instead I’d like to take a brief look at something even simpler – a one minute McDonald’s commercial.
My sister has always been a fan of a commercial from the 1988 Olympics titled “County Champ”. You can watch it here:
The story itself is quite simple: An Olympic contender who doesn’t make the cut returns home to an enthusiastic welcome. But why does it make an impression? How does it actually work? Within the first few seconds the story is set up in multiple ways. The camera moves down to an image of the athlete on the ground. We assume that he’s a runner from his outfit, and the sound of his panting indicates that he’s just run a race. His expression tells us that he’s not happy, and that’s reinforced by the dialogue as a coach tells him that there’s “another Olympics in four years”. The doleful piano also helps to set the tone, which is then reinforced by the lyrics which narrate the image. In other words, the first shot (twelve seconds of filmmaking, and roughly a quarter of the entire film) has established a scenario and a tone, though the general unhappiness of the opening may prompt us to wonder where the rest of the commercial is heading.
Things only get worse for our protagonist in the next two shots (eight seconds), which show the athlete talking on the phone (“No. I’m coming home.”), then dejectedly moving through an empty train station:
The pigeon is the kind of nice touch that you don’t want to overanalyze, but it gives the image an extra punch. This is followed by the longest shot in the film (thirteen seconds) which slowly tracks in on the dejected figure as he looks out the window of a moving train. The lighting might suggest that things are not entirely bleak, but it also reduces the actor to a near-abstraction:
But now’s when things get really interesting. The music starts to swell and there’s a three second shot of the athlete looking forward with astonishment before we cut to what he sees – a tracking shot as the train pulls into the station, moving across a large crowd, ending on the figures of his parents:
As the music continues to swell, along with the sounds of applause, we cut through ten shots in the final seventeen seconds of the commercial. This increases the rhythm, and drastically reduces the average shot length. The filmmakers know that the increased pace will keep our eyes glued to the screen, and pack that little extra emotional wallop as we vicariously experience the athlete’s excitement at his welcome home. It’s only now that we quietly get the corporate message as a narrator tells us that McDonald’s is paying tribute, “…to a human trait more powerful than the will to win…the courage to dream.”
Now, some people might argue that I’ve given this way too much thought – but I haven’t. I just watched it through a few times and picked out the things I noticed. The thing is, these are things we should ALL notice, because ANYTHING that’s presented visually uses or manipulates these same tools. It doesn’t matter if it’s a film from 1917, a news report from 1968, a music video from 1984, a Ford commercial from last year, or an on-line recap of last night’s Olympics. Filmmakers (including those who make commercials) KNOW that if they use all of the tools at their disposal they can manipulate our emotions and our responses. Sometimes they use this knowledge to be artistic, sometimes to promote an agenda, and sometimes just to be crass, but often it’s a combination of all three. That’s perfectly alright. But as a film academic, or even a casual viewer of a moving image, it’s important to understand what those tools are and how they work. It’s the only way to be appropriately critical of what’s put in front of us – and to understand why in the heck a slickly made McDonald’s commercial from years ago might still be stuck in my sister’s head.