One Man’s Swagger Is A Commercial Delight

Cannes Film Festival

Mark Williams


Quentin Tarantino’s done it.  So have David Lynch, the Coen brothers, even Sean Combs and Betty White.  Some of Hollywood‘s biggest names take time out of their schedules to shoot a commercial.  They enjoy the creative freedom and shorter schedules associated with commercial shoots.

Lensing these mini masterworks has long been a lucrative format for cinematographers interested in exploring new techniques and extending their skills.  Mark Williams has worked with a number of directors on commercials that air in different territories across the globe.  Most recently he completed a documentary-styled internet campaign for Toyota that’s become a comedy sensation.  411 Publishing recently spoke with Mark to discuss the commercial campaign and what it was like creating content for the web.


411:  You’ve worked on features and television.  What is it about a commercial that makes you want to continue shooting them?

Mark Williams:  In short, I started out in the ad business, and my entry into the film business was in commercials.  I just worked on a lot of really creative and really diverse work early on in my career as an assistant and as a DP, and just got a great variation of work.  A lot of really cutting edge stuff was happening in commercials where on all the features I’ve done, you sort of hit a groove and you go with it.  You find yourself doing the same stuff for months on end, and in commercials you’re moving week to week to new projects and the technical challenges are a lot more exciting.


411:  Obviously, the challenges that arise are different from commercial to commercial.  However, what would some of the common challenges be?

MW:  Well, every time you step up to a commercial, depending on who your working with, the director will have a different vision on how they want things to look, and a sensibility of motion, and maybe an effects component or something added to it, so you have to adapt and be able to deliver whatever it is that they’re looking for.  You’re just always testing yourself.


411:  On the Toyota campaign you recently shot, there is a great difference between the music video which is really slick, shot in black and white with a focus on the use of positive and negative space, compared to the other commercials that have a more documentary feel.  Was there a theory behind the two completely different looks?

MW:  The initial idea was to essentially create a documentary about this little off-kilter family.  The moments in the family’s lives are just fabrications of what’s in director Jody Hill’s mind.  The idea behind the video was to place them in a world where they thought they belonged.  There are a certain amount of references to street lingo in the commercial spots; they are sort of imagining themselves as urban hipsters.  We thought ‘Give them the place where that vibe would work.’  The rap video is sort of the most obvious and clichéd way of placing them in a world where they thought they belonged but obviously are quite out of place.


411:  What kind of camera and lighting set up were you using for the shoots?

MW:  All of the Toyota stuff is shot on Sony F35, including the music video.  I wanted a camera that let people look great, that had great latitude and the ability to roll extended takes.  For the music video we also used a vise cam for the high speed work.  The music video we shot on stage; we supplemented the stage lighting with a lot of iridescent light from the floor.  When you’re shooting cars you can’t put things overhead because you don’t want the reflection.  We also used a couple of 18ks and ring lights to get an R&B video look when the actors’ faces are jammed up in front of the camera.  For the documentary work our primary location was a house in the valley.  The light was insanely difficult to control.  We ended up flying in a bunch of grip clouds, and used very little lighting when we were in front of the house.  We built big light boxes on condors and flew them over the set for the night work.  I try to work interiors with as many practicals that I can, and create sources that have a real feel to them, so I’m more likely to push light in through a window than I am to bring a light into a house.


411:  What was your time schedule like during these shoots?

MW:  For the Toyota stuff, it was pretty ambitious.  We were doing two or three commercials a day.  We did that for eight shooting days, for the first half of it. 


411:  Where so much of the commercial content was aimed at the internet, would you say that there are different challenges for creating something for a smaller screen?

MW:  Absolutely.  Years ago I did a bunch of Polaroid commercials and I worked with a fellow – he would actually shoot the Polaroid of people you would use in your spots.  He had a great sense of how to compose for a really small frame.  A lot of it has to be viewed as simplicity of composition, though a Polaroid is quite a lot different than a video screen.  One of the things you want to do is make sure that things are visually simple and they read well.  I find depth of field is really helpful: using a really shallow depth of field emphasizes whatever it is you want the viewer to focus on.  In many situations I’ll shoot with a lens as wide open as I possibly can in order to isolate the depth of field. Beyond that, I don’t find myself doing anything that’s out of the norm.


411:  You were shooting the commercials at a time when Toyota was under public scrutiny.  In creating these commercials, did you feel you had an opportunity to help the company?

MW:  Yes.  The campaign was originally being shot for several Super Bowl commercials. We were made aware that the company was in trouble, and they were revisiting their ad campaign at the time.  When we were making the commercials we were thinking we’ll lift up the profile of the company through the use of humor.   The irony is that they pulled our Super Bowl commercials and used Lexus commercials that I shot with Lance Accord. 


411:  The commercials ended up having a healthy life on the internet, however.

MW:  There is a difference between commercials and viral content.  I think that was the intent from the inception of the campaign, the agency was calling them ‘viral.’  Out of the blue my wife was sent one of the spots by a friend who said ‘You’re going to love this!’  So it was viral and that’s a very gratifying intent. 


411:  What other commercial projects have you worked on with Jody?

MW:  We did a Gillette campaign with the New England Patriots that they show before the games there.  We did an Arby’s campaign, and actually something we did that we both really love was a video and six or seven promos teasers for a band called the Avett Brothers.  That was a great opportunity with Jody.  The Abbott Brothers are a college band with a loyal cult following. When they signed with a big record company and producer, all their fans thought they sold out.  So Jody’s approach was to make a video that was selling them out.  He just had this vision of those home shopping networks promos from the 80s that were very lo-fi television.   We shot them on thirty year old video cameras with old lens.  Then we would take a VHS tape and we’d crinkle it up, and we’d put it back in the cassette, and we did tape to tape dubs that way.  They’re genius. 


411:  What’s it like, working with the same director on a number of commercials, developing the concepts that flesh out the importance of the product?

MW:  Jody is a very trusting guy, we see eye to eye on things creatively, so it’s really a lot of collaboration.  He usually starts off with a vision of something.  When I met him, he’d never made a music video or a commercial, so he trusted me to help him go in a direction to help him achieve his vision.  He’ll have an idea, he’ll have a piece of paper to use as a reference and he’ll show me and ask my opinion.  We spend the pre-production time ironing out our approach and the look, and once we get to set he takes his hands off the visuals and focuses on the actors and you can see that in his work in general (Hill directs the television show “Eastbound and Down.”)  He’s just incredible with actors. 


411:  As a cinematographer, how do you feel about having something you’ve been devoted to viewed in such a small format?

MW:  You know, you have to accept it.  You have to approach your work the best you can, but in this day and age you have to accept that the content we are creating is for all types of platforms.  As much as you’d like to see it up on the big screen, which is such a joy, I’ve got no problem with the things that are up on the internet that do well.  It comes with the territory; it’s a huge part of the future.  If you want to continue to work, you need to be happy that you are going to put something up on the big screen periodically, but I think you need to be happy and just as passionate about putting something on an iPod or an iPad.  


To learn more about Mark Williams and view his demo, please visit:



To view the Toyota commercials, visit: