In fall 2009, I had just started film school at Full Sail University. I was determined to make the most out of every day that I was in Orlando while earning my degree. I was equipped with my camera, an HVX-200A that I had saved to buy over the last couple of years after dropping out of my previous liberal arts college, as well as a brand new MacBook Pro that Full Sail provides to all their new students packed with the Adobe Suite. I was quickly making friends with fellow film students who were just as eager to make films outside of class. These friends would become crew, actors, as well as collaborators for many projects to come.
Very early on, it struck me that rather than make silly sketches or try to create a full five-minute short film, I could find contests that would provide direction, a deadline, and a chance for some prize $$. In my eagerness, I scoured the internet for contests and festivals. I was surprised to find that there were several brands that would put creative briefs on the internet for the public to take a crack at producing themselves. They would offer awards anywhere from $500-$10k for some of the bigger ones on sites like mofilm.com or tongal.com, but the mac daddy was the annual Doritos "Crash the Superbowl" commercial contest.
Doritos was offering up to $1 million dollars in potential prize money and air time during the actual Super Bowl (the most coveted air time of the year). It was amazing because any ambitious directors had a shot - a long shot, but a shot none the less, to pass go and head straight to the top of the ladder. I definitely had to throw my hat in the ring!
A fellow student wrote a script detailing a post-Doritos world where people walked around dead eyed like zombies without the excitement of those cheesy triangular chips in their lives. A young man steps into frame with a fresh bag of the rare snack. As he pulls the bag open zombie people swarm the guy like sharks smelling a drop of blood in the water. A chase ensues.
I am pretty squeamish when it came to zombies and could only picture gruesome monsters with nacho cheese dripping from their mouth in place of blood. I shied away from the zombie motif and focused more on the chase. I found a local parkour group on Facebook and recruited a few parkour runners to act in my spot to make it more action packed.
I felt the pacing was better, but the overall spot was lacking any specific tone without the zombies. The actors were just chasing a guy with Doritos. I thought we could make it more fun by adding in some effects that would also boost the production value a bit. When someone would sense the proximity of the Doritos a cheesy orange cloud would waft into their nose. Their eyes would turn orange as they were "infected" with the Doritos craving. My after effects skills were good enough where I knew I could pull that off.
I wanted to give it a lighter funnier tone so I added in a gag at the beginning instead of a tumble weed blowing by the hero character's feet a crinkled up Doritos bag would blow by instead. We were lacking a solid conclusion. Would the chasers surround him and we end on an overhead shot of him holding the last chip over his head as he gets swallowed up by the crowd? I brainstormed for a few days drafting several ideas and the one that stuck held to the funnier tone.
Check out the finished project to see how we ended it:
We were able to use the back lot at Full Sail which has several sets that look like different parts of a city including a brown stone, a convenience store, and an outdoor restaurant.
Of course the tell tale sign of any amateur production... most of my cast were fellow students all under 25 years old. I was lucky enough to convince an elderly actress to come for a couple of hours in the afternoon. She definitely added a lot of production value so it didn't look like what it was... a bunch of film students running around campus.
We were so hopeful after we completed the finished product. I thought we had really pulled off something unique and with enough production value to impress at least one judge. We even made up documents of how we would fairly share the award money in anticipation of our glorious win. Of course, that never happened but, what did happen is it opened my eyes to a whole new form of filmmaking, ultra short form - commercials.
I quickly fell in love with the conciseness that leads to really tight clean, and hopefully impactful storytelling. I was forced to cut the "fat." Nothing could stay that absolutely didn't have to be there. There simply wasn't time for it. It is a constant puzzle and an excellent challenge. I began reading as many briefs as I could and the deadlines helped to inform what we could pull off. I would write 30-second spots for my class projects rather than the 3-5 min short films that everyone else was writing. If my script would get picked we could submit it to win some money to fund the next project. Plus we could make the spot on the school's dime. I would have a built in crew and whatever gear we needed.
My horizon expanded. I was a hungry filmmaker with my eyes on making big blockbuster adventure sci-fi and fantasy films. All of the sudden my appetite was changing. I realized that I could hone my craft in the advertising industry making 30 and 60-second ultra short films. If it was good enough for the likes of Ridley Scott and Michael Bay it was good enough for me.
The early experiment of playing around with Doritos contests and all of the many other commercial contests had paid off in dividends I had no idea were accumulating in the background. These experiences launched me into a new industry I didn't even know I was participating in at the time. It was just for fun and some extra cash. Today, I look back at those times and see that was the early foundation for my current career. I would highly recommend for any prospective filmmakers to check out mofilm.com, tongal.com, and even Doritos still has a form of their contest-driven content at www.doritoslegionofthebold.com
A few years later, after film school and I had my own production company, I directed another Doritos commercial that got to the finals, but that's a story for another post...