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Making Commercials: Real Barbies

A documentary-style commercial for Barbie dolls profiles real women, and a young girl, living their dreams.

By Michael Fickes

A young ballerina sees her passion for the dance reflected in her Barbie

A young ballerina sees her passion for the dance reflected in her Barbie.

"When I Grow Up," a :60 commercial for Mattel's Barbie dolls, is a creative coup.

Barbie has a long history of blazing career paths. The doll and her occupation-based outfits have spanned education, medicine, the military, science and engineering, politics, the arts and more — making girls think about the kinds of careers they might achieve today.

Instead of getting girls to pester their parents for a Barbie doll, "When I Grow Up" captures the attention of girls and moms alike, with an aspirational message showing real women, not actors, talking about how much they love what they do. Girls see what they might aspire to, and moms, who might not want their daughters playing with dolls, see a doll designed to fight stereotypes and excite dreams.

The women profiled in the spot include a helicopter pilot, artist, pianist, equestrian, soccer coach, guitarist, tailor, chef, firefighter and an aspiring young ballerina who makes her ballerina Barbie — the only doll shown in the commercial — leap across an imaginary stage.

The commercial concept came from Firedrill Productions, Mattel's El Segundo, California-based advertising agency.

Firedrill chose Peyton Wilson (www.peywilson.com) to direct the spot. Wilson works through the Los Angeles office of Nonfiction Unlimited (www.nonfictionunlimited.com), a production company that specializes exclusively in documentary commercial, film and web projects for advertisers. (See the spot here: www.nonfictionunlimited.com/directors/peyton-wilson/play_reel/521)

Wilson's pitch for the spot made it impossible for Firedrill to select another director. "I told the agency that I had been preparing to make this commercial my whole life," she says. "As a young girl, I had a dozen Barbies and played with them all day, creating and directing different characters. My career as a director started with Barbie."

Having been awarded the assignment, Wilson had to figure out how to pull it off.

DP Nicole Whitaker (left) and director Peyton Wilson chat between set ups while shooting the equestrian scene. Photo: Danielle Viale
DP Nicole Whitaker (left) and director Peyton Wilson chat between set ups while shooting the equestrian scene.
Photo: Danielle Viale

Casting a Wide Net
The problem with real-people commercials is that real people can't act. The Nonfiction Unlimited solution: Find real people who are comfortable with themselves and get them to be themselves while the camera is rolling. Then no one has to act, and the emotions, like the people, are real.

But finding the right real people requires looking at a lot of people. Wilson regularly works with Los Angeles-based DSC Casting, which specializes in casting real people. DSC sent teams across LA to find women working in many different professions.

Over the course of a month, Wilson interviewed more than 100 women. She talked to them in person, watched them on screen, and became friends with many. Wilson wanted self-confident, articulate women who would be comfortable talking about their dreams in front of the camera.

She even found some of the women herself casting a 77-year old artist for the spot. "That's Evy, my mom's best friend," Wilson chuckles. "I've always loved her face and wanted to photograph her. She's a painter and the kind of wise woman that you would go to for advice."

After a month's search, the cast was set with 15 women.

Wilson and Whitaker captured a real rock-star look for a musical sequence.
Wilson and Whitaker captured a real rock-star look for a musical sequence.

Capturing an Organic Film Look
In spare moments during the casting effort, Wilson and Nicole Whitaker, the LA-based DP, discussed the scenes they wanted to shoot, selected the camera, lenses, filters and other gear and worked out a look.

The ideas for scenes included filming the helicopter pilot during a pre-flight inspection and in flight; Evy, the artist, painting; the pianist at her piano; the equestrian grooming a horse and riding; the soccer coach working with her team; the guitarist after a performance; the tailor at work in her studio; the chef readying a gourmet dish, the firefighter preparing a fire truck and the young aspiring ballerina playing with Barbie.

Wilson wanted to capture a look different from typical 35mm film; something Whitaker calls an organic film look. "We decided to shoot Super35 Panavision using a lot of their older lenses," Whitaker says. "New lenses can be too sharp." Lens choices included Leica Leitz, which she calls "amazing. They let you get very close in on faces. We used these lenses in four vignettes, including soccer and ballet."

Kowa lenses were used for four vignettes. "Kowas have an unusual quality," says Whitaker. "They create a warm, spherical circular flare, which you can see in the scene with the guitarist performing."

Rehearsing and lighting the ballet scene. Photo: John Mullins
Rehearsing and lighting the ballet scene. Photo: John Mullins

Panavision portrait lenses accounted for two more vignettes. "These lenses create soft edges around the frame," Whitaker explains. "We used portraits to shoot the ballet class and the girl playing the piano."

Going a step further, Wilson and Whitaker worked out unusual filter packs, a different one for each vignette. For instance, Whitaker layered a White Pro Mist together with a 1/2 Classic Soft to shoot the soccer vignette.

The DP estimates that 60 to 70 percent of the scenes were shot handheld. She used a dolly for establishing shots and a 60-foot Condor crane for an overhead shot down onto the soccer field.

Going With the Flow
For Wilson, directing involved setting up scenes with the women doing their work and getting them to talk about why they love their work.

And the words flowed:

"As a little girl, I always dreamed of flying."

"It keeps my heart beating every day."

"Dream big."

"When I grow up, I can be anything." 

  Nicole Whitaker looks through the lens during the lighting and set up of the equestrian scene. Photo: Danielle Viale
  Nicole Whitaker looks through the lens during the lighting
and set up of the equestrian scene. Photo: Danielle Viale

Editing a documentary-style spot is a different art from editing a conventional narrative commercial whose story and script is predetermined. With a documentary-style spot, the story emerges after the shoot — anyone involved might come up with the idea.

One evening, Whitaker was watching footage on her computer and asked her husband what he thought of a scene. Instead of looking at her browser, he used the browser on his own computer. Suddenly, the recorded voices began to play over each other. It was serendipity.

"They told me to try it, so I listened to the audio on two browsers, and it sounded very cool," says Jessica Congdon, of San Francisco's Umlaut Films, who edited the spot.

Voices layered over and under each other formed the idea for the edit. The vignettes, of varying lengths, march along with the voice of each woman telling her story over her scenes. Because each woman expressed similar sentiments in different words, the dialogue of one woman works equally well with the scene from another.

The layered audio never drowns out voices; instead, it creates an echoing effect that communicates how exciting it is to do what you want to do when you grow up.