Commercial director David Jellison chats with Tommy Burke. David got his start working on music tours and then music videos. He switched to commercials when he discovered the catering for commercials was much better.
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Rock, Ratt & Van Halen
David’s first few jobs included working as a dishwasher and pumping gas, as well as various jobs at a grocery store. He then worked in construction, running a jackhammer. Between that and not having enough money to eat, he had great abs.
When David moved from San Diego to LA to pursue the dream of being a rock star, he played bass guitar with Steven Percy in the band Ratt. He also built and designe guitars in Charvelle guitars, where he got to know guys in Van Halen and became one of their inner circle.
He left Ratt in 1981 and, after going to Vidal Sassoon Cosmetology school for a brief time, he started working for Van Halen. He started work in the road crew in 1982, working 20 hours a day, doing long concert tours, which included the legendary US Festival. He witnessed lots of carnage, lawsuits, and wrecked hotel rooms. Since David was not doing drugs, he got ahead in the crew quickly. After a year, he became art director and lighting crew chief. By 1984, David did all the design for posters and merchandise. “It was a non-stop hell-ride of joy,” he recalls
David worked on the Van Halen music video for Pretty Woman, which was banned from MTV, due to outrageous content. In retrospect, it’s tame compared to anything today. This started David’s interest in film and video production.
When David saw the movie, Blade Runner, it changed his life from the opening frame from the movie. The movie blew his mind, so he decided to go into film production. David Lee Roth quit the band and got a movie deal with CBS, and Jellison was hired as the director’s assistant. He worked with storyboard artist, John Dahl (also a director). David became location scout and location manager in exotic beaches. After nine months, they were ready to start shooting, but CBS killed the project.
David called John Dahl to work with him on music video projects, and got a job working on one as a second Assistant Director in downtown LA. In 1987 he began as a Production Assistant, working for David Fincher on a music video at Propaganda Films.
David ran the lighting console at Propaganda, working with the director and gaffer. In that first year he worked 27 long days a month in any slot they needed for $50 to $100/day. David would even work for free to be a First Assistant Director to get the experience. Eventually got his rate up to $150 a day as a First AD.
Television Commercial Work
On his first television commercial, David worked as a second AD. His eyes flew out of his head on that project. The level of professionalism and quality was exponentially higher than music videos. Plus, he saw union people got paid overtime, unlike the music video world where it was a flat day rate.
Someone suggest David join the Directors Guild of America. To join, Davic gathered all of his call sheets and pay-stubs to prove the days he worked (it was hundreds of days of prep and shooting). After about two and a half years, David had enough days of work for music videos and commercials to get into the DGA.
David got some exposure, working with directors who are funny, and decided he could get into directing comedy. These funny commercials were prevalent in the Dot Com era. David was the House AD at Tool, and decided to pitch a comedy. He was told to go to an advertising agency to get the creative brief and go shoot a a spec commercial.
In 1998, an agency asked David to do a spec spot (four spots in a day) based on four log-lines. One of the log lines had a lot of potential for David. It was a clever concept for Apartments.com. Cops were called to an apartment, where there are dead guys, and talk about the size of the apartment and it’s features (and ignored the dead guys).
David spent $30,000 of his own money shooting this spec spot. It won awards. Based on this commercial, the agency was awarded an $8 Million dollar account, repaid David, and started pitching him as a director. It turns out that this scenario was highly unusual on every level. David got more commercials after that, and worked very regularly as a director as well for a short time. He booked around $8 Million in work in about six months.
Unfortunately he then hit a quiet time, which was a good lesson to him. He learned that he had to take control of his career and get work. He’s been directing commercials for 17 years, which is a good run in an industry where people often come and go after a couple of years.
He observes that in todays world, for every job you need to be astonishing. Budgets had been $200k and more a day, but now budgets are less than half of that and the expectations are much higher. You have to adapt and keep making it fun, David advises.
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David Jellison on Persuader Media site.
Follow jellisonfilm on Twitter.
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The Not Just Sunglasses & Autographs podcast is hosted by Tommy Burke, who has been working in TV and film production for more than 25 years as a First Assistant Director. Download the podcast, listen on iTunes, and write a review.