Tips to Make a Living as a Web and TV Commercial Director

What directing commercials really looks like, from finding work to shooting ratios.

“You have to adapt.”

Lights Online Film School was fortunate enough to sit down with director Camille Marotte and discuss his work in the commercial field. Many of our readers will be familiar with his projects, as they’re incredibly popular on Vimeo.

To set the stage for our interview, let’s watch “We Own the Sky”, a unique commercial Camille did about Ralph Lauren:

And now “Vincennes”, an epic commercial for the Hippodrome de Vincennes in Paris:

Hello, Camille, and thanks for taking us behind-the-scenes of your commercial work here! I’m curious about the business side of projects – how do you find new clients and maintain your relationships with existing ones?

As a freelancer if you want to keep your projects coming but also maintain your creativity (and the same time be able to eat out at restaurants), you need to have different ways to get different kinds of jobs. Moving from a team of 80 on one job to a team of 3 on the next one is really refreshing and what you learn shooting a web commercial or a clip with a friend can help you when shooting a big TV commercial. It’s really important for me to have a fresh eye, avoiding repetition, and to push every project to something that brings emotion.

So basically I have my representation in France and in different countries with production houses and agents; I also co-founded a collective that delivers premium web and corporate films for big companies, and I’m still contacted directly as a freelancer for various film jobs, where I basically do everything from concept to final grading (and my own coffees).

From "We Own the Sky" | Camille Marotte

From “We Own the Sky” | Camille Marotte

Haha. What approach did you take with “We Own the Sky”? It has a dreamy, impressionistic quality to it.

I actually did this video for a company who organizes internet sales for many kind of products, including Ralph Lauren clothes. So I was really free on directing/editing/grading the video myself as long as the models were wearing the brand’s clothes and it was close to the brand’s touch (and I wasn’t allowed to use naked people).

I enjoyed this video especially thanks to my good friend Matthieu Ouaki’s ethereal music he did especially for the project which gives the whole piece a very aerial, melancholic feel that I really enjoyed. I just had to apply a cold-greenish-desaturated color grading to the pictures and the mood was set.

It was one of my very first videos using the 5D Mark II back in 2009 but I still like it despite the mistakes I made.

How did you approach “Vincennes”?

For Vincennes I was commissioned by a production company in Paris to create something premium and epic to promote Vincennes Hippodrome. The final client liked my book and I accepted because I could manage concept, shooting editing and grading myself with just the help of my friend Jean Marie Delorme as DoP (and as a second mom).

I was impressed by night races and the mood created by the lights and the smoky horses at the end of a run in the winter. So I decided that I wanted to do something really epic with very strong music. In the end, I was really happy with the final result.

Let’s return to the client question. What is a working relationship like?

For example, do you begin with a treatment? Are you in charge of location scouting? What does the average client expect from you during pre-production? Can you more or less do what you want, or is the client heavily involved in both planning and shooting the content?

Outside of the world of TV commercials, it can be really different depending on the client. Sometimes they love your portfolio and really trust you during pre-production, and they love the final film at first sight. But then other times, there are endless discussions internally with their different bosses and marketing people, you never know.

It really depends, it’s different on every project and you have to adapt, especially if you are almost alone and doing everything by yourself, but one rule to keep in mind is: “Do your director’s cut no matter what” (trust me).

Wise words. Let’s take a moment to deconstruct “Vincennes”. First, the music plays to the commercial’s epic feeling perfectly. It really matches the energy of the images. In fact, this is something I’ve noticed in all of your work. Is music something you consider before production, or do you find your way to it in post?

Music is a critical element in a film, it gives the mood, energy and emotion to a project.

I always try to find references before shooting, it’s important to clearly see the type of pictures, camera movement and editing you’ll apply. Sometimes I also find better music after I’ve shot the project. It’s really about the feeling you have at a moment, but you have to really love the music to edit on it; if you’re not 100% sure, you should keep searching for another song or ask your composer to make changes.

I also noticed other sound design elements. Are these elements from sound effect libraries, or did you capture them on location?

I was using sound design elements before in my workflow, but in a de-structural way like in my video Bose.evOlve. Now I’m using them to push the immersive feel.

For Vincennes we had a sound designer with a microphone and all the equipment during the shoot, but sometimes if I find a specific sound in a sound library, I would just use that too. It’s really whatever works the best (just don’t tell the sound designer).

From "Vincennes" | Camille Marotte

From “Vincennes” | Camille Marotte

How did you track (and stabilize!) the racing horses, like at 00:37?

We were shooting from a traveling car at that moment with a 100m and 360m focal lenses which were pretty stable, but I kept the natural movement of the camera, which adds to the epic fight on the finish line.

Nice. The Hippodrome really affords some great visuals. When you walk into a location for the first time, what are some of the visual elements you’re looking for?

When I’m in nature, I’m looking for light and colors first.

Next, I consider what time of the day the place will look the best.

When I’m visiting a place like the Hippodrome, I’m going everywhere, looking at weird angles and details. Sometimes a place can look really bad overall but feel amazing when just concentrating on some parts with a specific angle and lens.

What helps a lot too is to shoot using reflections, windows, water on the ground, anything that will create an interesting composition in the end with a picture inside the picture.

From "Vincennes" | Camille Marotte

From “Vincennes” | Camille Marotte

Yes, I noticed that in your work. Good eye! Generally speaking, what’s your ballpark shooting ratio for a project like this?

For web commercials, about 10% of the shots make it into the final edit, when in television commercials it’s more like 5% (because you do many more takes for one shot, and it’s painful).

From "Vincennes" | Camille Marotte

From “Vincennes” | Camille Marotte

Did you use any studio lights during the production of “Vincennes“? Or was it all natural light? For example, at 00:45, I noticed a subtle highlight of wet grass under the credits – did you create this or was it there?

No, everything is natural light, or I would say “available light”, because for this particular shot in the end I went to shoot under the big projectors which were used to light the race, it was just a matter of finding the best spot.

You’ve worked a lot with the Canon 5D Mark II, and now you’ve just changed cameras to the 5D Mark III. How do you feel about the Mark III?

I was using the 5D Mark II so much that it was natural to go for the 5D Mark III even if it’s not a revolution.

I really like the updated LCD screen, less moire, and the better pictures using higher ISO speeds. Other than that it’s about the same camera to me. But working in television commercials I use the Arri Alexa a lot and even the Arri 235 on film, and both create an amazing picture (and it was a real pain to come back to the 5D I must admit).

Definitely a different caliber of camera. Turning briefly to post, I understand you edit and grade in After Effects, which is a bit of an unusual workflow. Why do you use After Effects over other options?

As I come from the motion design world, I know After Effects so well that it was natural for me to start with it. I like the fact you can do everything at the same time, editing, grading, typography, FX…

For me it provides me everything I need. In the industry you have a different person for each task and each person uses different software, but for me personally, I think it’s better to work on every creative aspect at the same time and really bring your project to life, and After Effects can do that pretty nicely (but it’s a very personal workflow I know :p).

Interesting, Camille! At the end of the day it’s not about the tools; it’s about the talent using the tools and what that creates. Thanks so much for sharing your time and perspective! It’s much appreciated.

For more from Camille, visit his website.

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